Tag Archives: Susan Stroman

“Crazy for You” at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

Billed as a ‘new’ Ira and George Gershwin show when it premiered in 1992, based on the musical Girl Crazy but with extra songs, Crazy for You is as solid a piece of theatre as you could wish for. Ken Ludwig’s book uses a neat plot that provides plenty of comedy as well as room for gorgeous tunes and great dance numbers. In short, it’s a safe bet, but add a star like Charlie Stemp and this production becomes special.

Stemp plays Bobby Child, desperate to break out of banking and into a dance career, pointing out how great theatre is along the way (always nice to hear). This involves Bobby putting on his own show – literally saving a theatre – while masquerading as a producer for comic effect. And there’s romance, with Bobby falling in love with (guess) the show-within-a-show’s leading lady. Simple? Remember, Stemp must be a comic and romantic lead, while singing and dancing… and he really can do it all.

Charlie Stemp and Tom Edden

Make no mistake – this whole cast is strong. Carly Anderson is leading lady Polly, sounding sweet and graceful with every move (she wears slacks like a ball gown). Polly has independence, but you can’t escape that the role is there to provide swoon and Anderson delivers. Natalie Kassanga’s Irene has her eye on Bobby, with fun results – her voice is so strong you really want the role expanded. And there’s a great comic turn from Tom Edden as a theatre impresario Bobby impersonates. The humour throughout is old-fashioned (bolstered by strong cameos from Sam Harrison and Rina Fatania as two restaurant reviewers), but thoroughly entertaining.

Rina Fatania and Sam Harrison

Susan Stroman, the show’s original choreographer, adds director to her credits for this revival (which began at the Chichester Festival Theatre) and paces the action with confidence. Excitingly, Stroman’s knowledge of the piece results in some risks: the dancing is a bit bonkers! Occasionally fevered, full of wit as well as plenty of acrobatics, it is value-for-money stuff. There are new orchestrations, too (from Doug Besterman and Mark Cumberland), which emphasise percussion to a bold degree.

Best of all, Stroman uses her star for all he’s worth – and that is a lot. Aside from being one of the best singers and dancers around, with that prized skill of making it all look easy, Stemp can get a laugh and make emotions genuine. Crazy for You isn’t Shakespeare (despite a touch of Twelfth Night with its wooing in disguise), but the love affair convinces. Maybe Stemp appeals because he seems to be having so much fun? That enjoyment makes him perfect casting for a role that focuses on a love of theatre and gives the whole production an infectious joy.

Until 20 January 2024


Photos by Johan Persson

“The Scottsboro Boys” at the Garrick Theatre

A sell-out last year at the Young Vic, with rave reviews, The Scottsboro Boys has now transferred into the West End. Kander and Ebb’s last musical, the story of an infamous miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama, is a harsh, uncompromising look at racism that makes for powerful musical theatre.

The performances are great, with key cast members visiting from Broadway: Brandon Victor Dixon, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon all take on demanding lead roles with inspiring confidence. The whole ensemble is tight and standards of acting high. The staging is sparse – director and choreographer Susan Stroman uses chairs to create the sets – it’s inventive but feels a little lost in a big space.

Kander and Ebb never shied away from ‘difficult’ subject matter. Don’t forget, Cabaret and Chicago are about Nazis and gangsters. Their final work together was just as brave: accused of raping two white girls, nine blatantly innocent black men spent years in prison and fought trial after trial, becoming a focal point for the civil rights movement.

The music will sound familiar to fans, but the approach here is as bold as the subject matter. Taking on the format of a minstrel show (akin to appropriating cabaret and vaudeville for their previous hits) the black actors perform white roles, serving as a commentary on racial stereotypes that is provocative and tense. It’s a reflection on the entertainment industry as well, with the stock characters of Mr Tambo and Mr Bones creating an uncomfortable undertone.

There were small protests at the use of a minstrel show on Broadway. I can’t see the reason myself – the criticism of the genre is so implicit and the final rejection of the format by the performers, who refuse to do the Cake Walk, is rousing. But the humour here is harsh and bleak making The Scottsboro Boys unusually devoid of laughs. This show is a huge achievement, but not an easy night out.

Until 21 February 2015


Photo by Johan Persson

“Paradise Found” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Coming to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s new musical, Paradise Found, slightly later than the first-night critics, it was hard for this writer to avoid the early reviews. These began with an assault by the bloggers and were followed by the pros, who seemed to enjoy panning the show with only marginally less enthusiasm than their amateur colleagues. Combine the Menier’s recent record (success in the West End and on Broadway) with the cast and creatives imported for this show and it is hard to see what could go wrong. Co-directed by Hal Prince and Susan Stroman and starring a fantastic Broadway cast, could it really be as bad as everyone is saying?

At turns dreadfully, offensively, old fashioned and then novel to the point of eccentricity, Paradise Found is odd and unsettling. However, with a cast this talented, the evening is always entertaining. Set to music of Johann Strauss II (see what I mean about odd) with musical direction by Charles Prince, it often sounds lovely and, with a clever set by Beowulf Boritt, it looks pretty good as well.

There is some great comic talent here. John McMartin is very funny as the Shah of Persia travelling to Austria to revive his libido. And it is a privilege to hear Shuler Hensley and Kate Baldwin as the Baron and the prostitute who fall in love. And then there is Mandy Patinkin, who jokes, sings and pauses for thought as a (strangely Zen) eunuch from the Shah’s court.

Although the story is silly (and it is inspired by real life events) this shouldn’t be a huge problem for musical theatre. Things start to fray when the ratio of deliberately bad jokes outweighs those that get genuine laughs. The show is also strangely disjointed, with an interval located before the end of the first act. In the latter part of the evening the action takes place 15 years on and things become darker in tone. The now destitute Baron is performing in a musical of his own story. This vaudeville version of events that bordered on pastiche might have sounded post-modern and clever. It is actually just a bad idea.

Paradise Found is messy, but it is a bold mess with moments of brilliance. Many of its failings don’t really sink in until later. With Prince and Stroman behind it, the faults may be surprising, but these two are big enough to learn lessons and I suspect this won’t be the last we hear of their show. The Menier is to be commended not only for bringing so much talent to our shore but also for taking risks. This is what has brought it so much success recently, and it must be careful that it doesn’t lose this quality.

Until 26 June 2010


Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 June 2010 for The London Magazine