Tag Archives: Rodgers and Hammerstein

“Carousel” at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The joy of theatre is that it changes all the time – it’s alive. And most can agree that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical, wonderful as it is, needs some changes. The show’s lead, wife-beating fairground attendant Billy Bigelow, is a tough sell for our times. And the too casual acceptance of his violence, including that from Mrs B, means that the romance leaves a nasty taste, despite the sublime score. Boldly attempting a new kind of Carousel, director Timothy Sheader can be applauded – the aim is admirable – even if the production doesn’t quite succeed.

Tom Scutt’s bare design is an indication that this Carousel isn’t going to be pretty or charming. Any nostalgia about the New England setting is replaced with British regional accents that manage to bring an air of working-class realism surprisingly well. And Drew McOnie’s excellent choreography shows us a world of work and violence. The only sheer delight is a wonderful Carrie Pipperidge, where Christina Modestou’s lilting Welsh voice made me wonder how she would deal with all manner of show tune standards.

Carly Bawden and Christina Modestou in Carousel at Regents Park
Carly Bawden and Christina Modestou

Women come to the fore in Sheader’s vision for the show. To be fair to Rodgers and Hammerstein, that isn’t hard. Carly Bawden’s Julie – the lead with bad taste in men – intrigues; she has an otherworldly quality to go with her out-of-this-world voice. Joanna Riding’s matriarchal Nettie is convincing, while the carousel owner Mrs Mullin is made a forceful presence by Jo Eaton-Kent. The ensemble provides memorable moments, confronting the audience and Billy about his crimes.

Carly Bawden and Declan Bennett
Carly Bawden and Declan Bennett

As for our kind of hero, Declan Bennett’s Billy has none of the usual charisma… fair enough. Billie is a weak, feckless character (too easily swayed by Sam Mackay’s somewhat pantomime villain, Jigger) and Bennett does this well. But Billy being boring makes the love story at the heart of the show unbelievable. We know Julie is a fool to fall for him, but if the audience doesn’t fall as well – just a little – the show becomes robbed of emotion.

A chilly Carousel then, but that isn’t the biggest problem here. While Sheader’s vision can be respected – it’s clever and clear – changes to the score are less successful, and updating the music is a riskier affair. Again, the approach is bold: a classic American score has hints of Americana (with surprisingly modern touches), but seemingly at random. The additions will keep you guessing – they entertain – but hampered by excessive amplification the sound is sometimes cheap and tinny. Overpowering the singers more than once, the music is almost unpleasant. And that can’t be the kind of new ride Sheader intended.

Until 25 September 2021

www.openairtheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Sound of Music” from The Shows Must Go On!

This is the first show in the fund-raising series started off by Andrew Lloyd Webber that is not his work. And while the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is welcome, it takes me out of my blogging comfort zone! Although presented as ‘live’, this a film directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller with little sense of the theatre. Even trickier, it has a very made-for-TV feel.

We can still enjoy the wonderful, hit-filled score and be impressed by the book (from Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse), which tells the true story of the Von Trapp family singers so expertly. The cast of famous names is attractive and there is a lot of lovely singing here. But this isn’t going to satisfy anyone looking for a theatrical fix as it suffers from a static air that makes you wonder… why not just go for the real film?

The stilted feel doesn’t just come from some unimaginative filming, sets or choreography. It rests mainly with performances that are downright poor. Stephen Moyer’s Captain Von Trapp sounds good but his performance is surprisingly tense and devoid of humour. Perhaps less surprisingly, the children also seem scared, a little too close to the “marching machines” that their fictional father wants them to be.

The exception among the younger roles is Ariane Rinehart, who does a good job at Liesl and the acting gets much better with strong performances from Christian Borle and Laura Benanti – scenes with these two really pick up. But, while it makes a nice reference, the unsolved problem here is Maria. The central performance from Carrie Underwood sounds fine; although her singing lacks nuance, in her defence Maria does make a point of singing loud! But more wooden than the Wienerwald, Underwood’s acting is frequently poor. The whole thing looks such an effort, it becomes painful – surely these lockdown times are tense enough.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 23 May 2020

“Carousel” at the English National Opera

Director Lonny Price’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical is billed as ‘semi-staged’. But with a massive stage that rotates, impressive projections to set the scene and a huge cast – you’d be very fussy to feel short changed. This is a big-scale show, befitting such an iconic piece, with star names and an orchestra that do justice to the legendary score.

The much-loved Alfie Boe takes the lead of wastrel Billy Bigelow. Star soprano Katherine Jenkins joins him as the devoted Julie Jordan. Their doomed love affair sounds so good that any deficiencies in their acting skills are easily forgiven. Jenkins is a little wooden and Boe seems to regard running around as shorthand for frustration. But it’s a tough job making characters fit for a parable really breathe.

Smaller roles compensate. The show boasts a strong villain in Derek Hagen’s Jigger Craigin – his work with the chorus on Blow High, Blow Low is a real highlight, full of convincing machismo, adding tension that ripples out through the whole piece. And there’s a super Mr and Mrs Snow, in Gavin Spokes and Alex Young, who are full of sweet comic touches.

The operatic voices here, bolstered by the excellent ENO chorus make an ambitious statement about taking the sublime score seriously. But the production has a reverence that’s questionable when it comes to the dated sexism of the piece. Julie’s final exoneration of Billy’s domestic abuse is too tough a line to stomach. Changing it wouldn’t be a matter of political correctness – it was never the suggestion that hitting your wife is OK. The finale is for resolution and keeping the line doesn’t work anymore. A small quibble about an excellent show… but it leaves a nasty taste that could be avoided.

Until 13 May 2017

www.eno.org

“Allegro” at the Southwark Playhouse

It’s hard to believe there’s a musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that is only now receiving its UK premiere. The coup of finally staging this 1947 piece goes to the team of producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland. While you can understand why this life story of an Everyman, Joseph Taylor Jr, hasn’t joined the composer and lyricist’s formidable hit parade, the show is well worth seeing.

Taking the lead is Gary Tushaw, first handling the puppet that represents his role’s young years, taking us through first love at high school, a career as a doctor and finally the breakdown of his marriage. Tushaw is endearing and sounds great but his character is perhaps a little too saintly. We meet his family, of course – grandmother (Susan Travers) and parents (Steve Watts and Julia J Nagle) – all fine upstanding performances for the roles of fine upstanding citizens. Surprisingly, his love interest isn’t likeable, which makes her a deal more interesting and gives Emily Bull something to get her teeth into.

ALLEGRO 1 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander
Southerland injects as much energy into Hammerstein’s book as he can, with the help of some superb choreography from Lee Proud and a nimble set from Anthony Lamble that makes me confident none of the cast suffers from vertigo. And it’s difficult to criticise this “simple” story for being just that – when the “commonplace” is so clearly the aim. Taylor turns his back on big success – that’s his achievement. Time in the city, where living a “ratrace” gives the musical its title song, is far from the overall tone. The piece is obsessed with hope and home. Maybe I am a softie but I was amazed something so sentimental wasn’t cloying.

The ambition of Rodgers and Hammerstein in Allegro wasn’t timid, and nor is Southerland, but the show is small in scope and occasionally condescending. And yet a collection of songs this strong should not be missed. It’s clear that the ensemble, which includes professional debuts for Matthew McDonald, Benjamin Purkiss and Samuel Thomas, are committed to them. With numbers as good as The Gentleman is a Dope for a supporting role (a superb Katie Bernstein), you can’t fail to be impressed.

Until 10 September 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Carousel” at the Arcola Theatre

A favourite musical for many, a new production of Carousel opened at the Arcola Theatre last night. Making the most of this intimate venue, with astounding up-close choreography, this is a high energy affair that does wonders to work the big scale of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece within a small space.

Director Luke Fredericks has a clear grasp of the fantasy within Carousel. The overture is used to establish the fairytale atmosphere with an interesting air of danger surrounding a trip to the fairground. Let’s be honest, the love story of “bad un” Billy Bigelow and the innocent Julie isn’t that believable, so adding a surreal touch is clever, especially for later scenes set in the ‘backyard of heaven’.

Tim Rogers as Billy Bigelow and Gemma Sutton as Julie Jordan in CAROUSEL. Photo Credit QNQ Creative
Tim Rogers and Gemma Sutton

As Billy and Julie, Tim Rogers and Gemma Sutton seemed nervous at first but their acting was strong throughout. No easy task when you consider how many of the morals within Carousel make their characters unhappy ones for a modern audience. Rogers’ manages to make the vicious Billy sympathetic and Sutton insures Julie’s martyrdom is moving.

Joining them in romance, Vicki Lee Taylor and Joel Montague have a jollier time as Carrie Pipperidge and Mr Snow. Their sweetness doesn’t cloy and the humour is well developed. When The Children Are Asleep is a highlight, with the odiferous sailor Snow washing those fishes right out of his hair on stage. The whole ensemble is incredibly hard working. Special mention for Amanda Minihan’s spirited Nettie and a lusty rendition of June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.

Nettie’s raunchy appeal is matched at several points by earthy touches in Fredericks’ production. I normally quite fancy the clambake in Carousel – not so much this time as it seems to make everyone sick – but I can see the point of bringing the show down to earth a little. Similarly Richard Kent’s villainous Jigger makes an impression with a knowing delivery of his character.

Best of all is Lee Proud’s choreography, with a stirring combative streak and a use of circus skills that is inspired. So close is the action you might feel a little nervous if you are on the front row. Rest easy with the wonderful score, which soars under Andrew Corcoran’s musical direction. Here the coup is the presence of a harpist, squeezed onto a platform above the action, sure to please Carousel connoisseurs.

Until 19July 2014

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by QNQ Creative

Written 24 June 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Sound of Music” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

This year’s musical at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s firm favourite The Sound of Music. Whisper it, but not everyone is a fan of the family Von Trapp, or the novice-turned-governess Maria’s journey of self-discovery: tarnished by TV, the problem to solve here is one of over familiarity. Courageously, this production demands an open mind, presenting the piece with remarkable freshness.

The Sound of Music is one of those musicals where everything is expressed in a song, and a good tune can literally be your salvation. While it’s hard to imagine a heart hard enough not to melt at the children cast as the Von Trapp infants, the real achievement is that that sweetness doesn’t become saccharine. Rachel Kavanaugh directs the show with ruthless efficiency and creates a version devoid of silly camp theatricality – no small feat when everyone is dressed as nuns and soldiers with a smattering of lederhosen.

There is an impressive simplicity that serves the show well, even managing to inject menace and tension. Kavanaugh seems to have taken Maria’s back to basic approach to music making to heart. The songs we love are delivered without fanfare and are all the better for it. And this approach is echoed by Peter McKintosh’s superb meadow-fringed set, effectively changing from convent to mansion, concert hall to mountain range with a magical minimalism.

Taking on the lead role must be an uphill struggle for any performer, but Charlotte Wakefield gambols along, sounding great, with a gawky, infectious charm. Like policemen, it seems Captain von Trapps are getting younger – surely someone with seven children has to have a tinge of grey in the hair? – but Michael Xavier has a great voice and is a virile presence on stage (remember, seven children). And who can remember the supporting characters in the much re-played 1965 film? Here, Michael Matus and Caroline Keiff make room for their roles as the Captain’s cowardly friend and sophisticated Viennese fiancée with humour and grace and a couple of decent songs. But my favourite thing? Helen Hobson as the Mother Abbess and her superfluity of nuns performing their chorus numbers with a real feeling of religiosity. A brave move that injects weight into the show and, as night falls over Austria both literally and figuratively, provides a stunning finale that has both a bang and a wimple.

Until 14 September 2013

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 7 August 2013 for The London Magazine