Tag Archives: Stephen Mear

“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

“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

“Crazy For You” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Crazy For You, which had its Broadway debut in 1993, is a tribute musical woven from the work of George and Ira Gershwin. Inspired by the 1930 stage hit Girl Crazy, Ken Ludwig provides a new book and adds hit songs. An appropriately slim, yet seamless, plot has a banker-cum- wannabe-dancer disguising himself as a theatrical impresario in order to save a neglected theatre and win a girl.

Taking us from New York to Nevada, mixing the Ziegfeld Follies with the Wild West, there are plenty of laughs and, more importantly, plenty of tunes. Musical theatre takes any opportunity to sing -‘Let’s put on a show’ – and witness, without questioning, the power of a show tune to change lives. This is joyous stuff full of the feelgood factor.

The Regent’s Park production is marked by a justified sense of confidence, most notably in director Timothy Sheader’s lightness of touch. These days, Sheader has an enviable reputation for musicals and he has reunited the team that brought us Hello Dolly, including Peter McKintosh, whose intelligent costume design surely merits him another Olivier nomination.

Sheader gets the best out of his cast. Sean Palmer takes the lead of Bobby with ever-present charm and elegance. His love interest, Polly, is played by Clare Foster. Her voice doesn’t zing, but it is wonderfully sweet and her acting skills are superb. And there’s a thrilling supporting cast, including Harriet Thorpe and Kim Medcalf, with a string of great numbers.

Gershwin’s music is made to dance to. This is the real joy of Crazy For You and Stephen Mear’s choreography, full of wit as well as grace, does it justice. McKintosh provides a moon to ride and Tim Mitchell’s lighting design means the stars aren’t just in the skies above you. This team succeeds in making Regent’s Park more glamorous and romantic than it has ever been.

Until 10 September 2011

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 11 August 2011 for The London Magazine

“Sweet Charity” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

With a terrific blast of brass, the Menier Chocolate Factory’s prodcution of Sweet Charity announces to the audience that it is in for a great evening out.

Tamsin Outwaite plays the eponymous lead.  She gives an endearing and spirited performance as the New York tango ‘hostess’ who wears her heart on her sleeve and manages to stay a romantic against all the odds. It is a demanding role, which she manages with great energy and a broad grin throughout.

Mark Umbers revels in playing the men in her life. A film idol, who sees in Charity a sweet innocence his sophisticated lifestyle now lacks, and the neurotic Oscar, her unlikely knight in shining armour.  He is a superb comedic foil and takes on the contrasting roles with equal skill.

If stars have to be singled out, though, Charity’s colleagues in the tango hall give amazing performances.  Tiffany Graves and Josefina Gabrielle both move far beyond their ‘tart with a heart’ roles to give their characters real depth.  They deserve the great laughs they get and, most importantly, they both sing and dance wonderfully.

But nobody really steals this show. This is one of the strongest ensemble casts I have ever seen – every member works as hard as they possibly can and great credit goes to casting such a talented group. ‘Rhythm of Life’ is probably the best example; Oscar and Charity’s first date is a visit to a drug-fuelled ‘church’ and the ensemble performance as the spaced-out congregation is comic genius.

Underpinning all this talent are some fresh ideas that really bring the show to life.  Director Matthew White has not felt burdened by the film version. The show has plenty of camp appeal but following Neil Simon’s book, a certain sharp, candid edge. ‘Big Spender’, which the whole audience is really waiting for, is an hilarious revelation.  It is performed with a mock sensuality by women who are tired and bored – of course they are, they’re at work.

Choreography by Stephen Mear, who did fantastic work at Regent’s Park this summer, is similarly superb.  He has a great showcase in the ‘Rich Man’s Fugue’ number. The dance brings comedy to the fore and his movements show the strange position of the piece as a late 60s musical – falling between a big Broadway show and something rather more avant-garde. There are set pieces to be sure but Mear has looked as far and wide for inspiration, as the music and lyrics of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields did. The result might seem odd at times, a joyous musical that denies us a happy ending, but is always thrilling.

Until 7 March 2010

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 December 2009 for The London Magazine