Tag Archives: Shaftesbury Theatre

“Be More Chill” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Joe Iconis’ musical knows its early teen audience well and its soundtrack has been a phenomenal success. Based on the novel for young adults by Ned Vizzini, with the show’s book by Joe Tracz, its “loser” hero Jeremy takes a pill containing a computer that will make him popular. The free-will twist has thankfully struck a chord with its young demographic. My question is, can the show please a larger crowd as well as its intended cohort?

There are limitations to the high school musical genre. Be More Chill follows a formula and has the usual earnestness, with the extra irony of telling you how important it is to relax. And there’s an expected cheeky edge that isn’t as funny as it would like to be. Take the school play (the obligatory public event for the finale) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… with zombies – it gets a laugh but, if you’re my age, you’ve probably seen that production for real. 

Stewart Clarke as The Squip in Be More Chill
Stewart Clarke as The Squip

Problems carry through to director Stephen Brackett’s production. The silliness in the scenario is embraced but is checked by the undoubted, essential, sincerity. Taking the teenagers’ problems seriously is important but sits uneasily with the camp nonsense. There is fun – credit to Stewart Clarke as ‘The Squip’, the nanotechnology performed larger than life – but you can’t escape a sense of trying too hard.

Blake Patrick Anderson and Scott Folan in Be More Chill
Blake Patrick Anderson and Scott Folan

But there are no complications with the music – look at those download figures! Iconis’ lyrics are good and the songs entertaining. There’s plenty of variety and adventurous touches while electronica is kept under control. Every number is a big one (on stage, a little overwhelming) and the whole cast get good turns. From Millie O’Connell, in a relatively small role, showing strong comedy skills, to Blake Patrick Anderson’s show-stopping number Michael in the Bathroom: he gives that soundtrack a run for its money… music is better live!

Miracle Chance and Scott Folan in Be More Chill
Miracle Chance and Scott Folan

The characters and performances are strong. The lead part of Jeremy is a true star role, studiously written as ‘relatable”, which Scott Folan gives his all to. Barely off the stage, Folan manages that balance between funny and sincere. And it’s impossible not to be won over by his love interest, the admirably independent Christine. She loves the theatre, so we love her, and the performance by Miracle Chance is suitably adorable. 

There are many parallels to draw with another teen hit, Dear Evan Hansen – about a troubled teen in a crazy situation – that Iconis surely has mixed feelings about. Avoiding numbers for parents (there’s only half of one that Christopher Fry does well with) seems a sensible move. And taking itself slightly less seriously, with Brackett’s help, also helps. Be More Chill has no room for cynicism, and a light touch is when the show becomes truly winning. Relax and you’ll like it, whatever your age.

Until 5 September 2021

www.bemorechillmusical.com

“Memphis” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Memphis was a success on Broadway, winning four Tony Awards, including the coveted Best Musical trophy. Now at the Shaftesbury Theatre, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit. One of those shows that wears its heart and soul on its sleeve, it is, in the cast’s joyous catchphrase, totally hockadoo!

Aspiring white disc jockey Huey, based on real-life radio pioneers in the 1950s, falls in love with black music and starts to make it mainstream. Huey’s career provides one story arc, with racial tensions abounding and exacerbated by a burgeoning love affair with the talented black singer Felicia. While simplistic, to its credit, Memphis doesn’t shy away from the realities of sexism or violence, giving the show plenty of dramatic tension.

The book by Joe DiPietro is tightly constructed and the themes inspirational enough to guarantee a thoughtful feelgood factor. The script has enough one-liners to inject humour and director Christopher Ashley’s efficiency produces a fast moving show that builds momentum nicely. Music is from former Bon Jovi star David Bryan. Sighs of relief that this is an original score (it could so easily have been another jukebox musical) but more impressively, that there are some great numbers. In keeping with the topic, the musical sources are broad; rock ’n’ roll, blues, gospel (my favourite) and a nice pop hit called ‘Someday’, which I bet you’ll be humming as you leave.

The set design by David Gallo is slick and the high-energy choreography by Sergio Trujillo thrilling. The gymnastic ensemble is vigorous and if some of the secondary roles could be fuller, in particular that of Huey’s mother who has an unconvincing comedy number, each performer embraces time in the spotlight as if they were in a stadium. This is a star vehicle; the story of Huey and Felicia so perfectly embodies the bigger themes, and in these roles Killian Donnelly and Beverley Knight shine.

cropmemphisinsert-credit-Johan-Persson
Killian Donnelly

The focus of the story is madcap MC, Huey, and Donnelly doesn’t waste a line, be it sung or spoken. He’s one of those performers who makes of virtue of showing how hard he is working, and we warm to him throughout. As for the luminous Knight, it’s hard to believe Memphis is only her second stage role. Each time she hustles on stage, starting to sing as soon as she can, the atmosphere is magnificent. Knight’s acting skill isn’t negligible – she can hold a big stage and that is hard – but she’s really there for the singing and her voice will make you want to visit Memphis more than once.

Booking until 31 October 2015

www.memphisthemusical.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Pajama Game” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Recent closures and current bargains on tickets for some damn fine shows remind us how precious a hit in the West End is. But the transfer from Chichester of Richard Eyre’s superb production of Adler and Ross’ The Pajama Game is a safe bet if ever there was one. This unashamedly old-fashioned musical great is so conscientiously staged that there’s everything to like.

The Pajama Game is the prototype for a small genre of musicals that deal, believe it or not, with industrial disputes. Billy Elliot and the forthcoming Made in Dagenham both aim for a similar blue-collar theme. Here the employees of the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory are about to strike for a pay rise, albeit in a jolly manner. Meetings include entertainment, the hit song Steam Heat, and a rally is really a parade, based on the requested remuneration, with the number Seven-and-a-Half Cents. Life should imitate art sometimes but I fear even Equity isn’t this much fun.

As if commerce and labour weren’t enough, there are love stories, too. One is between a secretary and a jealous time-and-motion manager who used to be in a knife-throwing act – the circus connotation is apt as they are some pretty mad moments here. The other features the love-struck leads: Sid, who runs the factory, and Babe, who deals with grievances for the Union. There’s trouble ahead, obviously, but, for all her feistiness, Babe doesn’t really get that mad, even when Sid sacks her, so there’s no need to worry. It all ends happily with a gloriously silly pajama party at Hernando’s Hideaway.

Just in case it’s not obvious yet, this is one for those who enjoy a song and a dance. If you have ever liked a musical, you’ll love The Pajama Game. The performances are great, the ensemble is strong and there are fine comic turns from Peter Polycarpou (performing until 2 June after which Gary Wilmot takes the role) and Claire Machin. In the leads Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier make a handsome couple and their old-fashioned flirting is a delight. Riding’s Babe is a “firecracker” without labouring the point and is impressively convincing. Xavier’s voice is as strong as any you will hear on stage.

The talented choreographer Stephen Mear steps into the shoes of none other than Bob Fosse. But this version is really a singers’ show, so Mear deserves praise for injecting so much visual joy into the piece. In fact, he ‘gets’ Eyre’s production perfectly, with his honest, uncynical and exuberant approach. I smiled from start to finish.

Until 13 September 2014

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 15 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“From Here To Eternity” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

From Here To Eternity – The Musical opened this week at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The story of military lives and loves, based on James Jones’ novel, is set on the eve of Pearl Harbour. Famous because of the multiple Oscar winning film from 1953, this version is grittier than anything Hollywood could have produced that year. It’s a grown up affair, reminding us that musicals can deal with adult themes and complicated passions and crediting its audience with intelligence – and all the better for that.

The book by Bill Oakes and lyrics by the old maestro Tim Rice catch the attention. There’s no shying away from sex here, as First Sergeant Milt Warden starts a sea-soaked affair with his Captain’s wife Karen, while Private Robert E Lee Prewitt falls in love with a prostitute while battling with pressure from his comrades to return to the boxing ring, where he once blinded a man. There’s a lot going on. The language and violence of the soldiers, bored while waiting for war, has an authentic brutality.

A bold approach to the story is backed up by music from Stuart Brayson, who makes a startling West End debut. Drawing on a variety of styles, that nearly all hit home, this is an accomplished score and highly entertaining. Combined with Rice’s lyrics, there are several fine examples of characterisation. Choreographer Javier De Frutos works marvels with some adventurous dancing that shows off the strength of the male ensemble.

Tamara Harvey directs, dealing effectively with the exciting plot and providing time for the cast’s acting skills. The female characters, a frustrated wife and tart with a heart, are less well served than their love interests. But Rebecca Thornhill and Siubhan Harrison match the leading, male, roles in skill. Robert Lonsdale takes charge, giving a stirring performance as the independent Private Prewitt, while Darius Campbell sounds fantastic as Warden.

There is no shortage of achievements here, not least a satisfying cynicism and a look at big themes that have you itching to go back to the source material. An impressively dark tale, trying hard to be unsentimental and ending with a twist I thought brave – it can’t just be the downbeat subject matter that makes you leave slightly uninspired. A shame since few opportunities to impress are lost – the show just lacks that final spark. It’s a brave critic that offers predictions: stranger musicals than this one have gone on to success and some with fewer merits. I doubt From Here to Eternity will run forever, but it has enough going for it to hold its head high.

Booking until 26 April 2014

Written 24 October 2013 for The London Magazine

“Rock of Ages” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

It’s the aim of the critic to provide an objective, knowledgeable appraisal. With Rock of Ages, a new musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre, that ideal is a tough ask when you can’t abide the music involved. Originally produced on Broadway, this tribute show to 80s rock music recycles some of the worst songs I’ve ever heard, ‘boasting’ hits from Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Europe and the like. Its music so terrible that it doesn’t even qualify as a guilty pleasure. If you disagree – then grab yourself a ticket, because this is the night out for you.

What I can do is spot the talent that has gone into making Rock of Ages: precise direction from Kristin Hanggi, outrageously fun costumes from Gregory Gale and a good book from Chris D’Arienzo. The stars are Justin Lee Collins and Shayne Ward, whose fans will no doubt be pleased to see them, but the real focus is Simon Lipkin, whose wonderful performance shows off his musical theatre credentials and puts him centre stage.

The idea behind Rock of Ages is sound enough. D’Arienzo identifies just how camp this genre can be and sees a connection between it and musical theatre. Grafting the songs on to a traditional plot, which includes young lovers and putting on a show, there is a tongue-in-cheek feel that you can’t help but like. And yet it fails to gel. Rock and dance don’t mix, so Kelly Devine’s efforts at choreography look odd. And while rock might be camp, you can’t push the parallel too far – true camp has an edge of seriousness and the parody here deflates it.

Rock of Ages goes to the very heart of what is good and bad about tribute musicals. It’s light hearted, high spirited and fun… but if the songs aren’t your bag, no matter how much some people are enjoying themselves (and a great many really seem to be), you will be left feeling baffled.

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 14 November 2011 for The London Magazine