Tag Archives: The Shows Must Go On!

“The Wiz” from The Shows Must Go On!

A change in schedule to this programme, proving a boon to theatre lovers during lockdown, was inspired by current protests. With an extra donation button to the NAACP added, this weekend offered a chance to see a show that made history by combining the classic Wizard of Oz story with African American culture.

This TV movie production, directed by Matthew Diamond and Kenny Leon, boasts a superb cast and some great costumes. It’s a shame that scenes are truncated and that filming hampers appreciation of the choreography.

With the exception of the show’s hit tunes (Ease on Down the Road and A Brand New Day) the music might disappoint. Led by Charlie Smalls (with Timothy Graphenreed, Harold Wheeler, George Faison and Luther Vandross), too many numbers feel a touch generic. Maybe that is a price of their success? The book by William F Brown is a lot more fun and the show’s humour considerable. Time and again, strong performances lift the songs above average. But what performances!

The Wiz Live! photo credit Virginia Sherwood/NBC
Shanice Williams and Amber Riley

With Mary J Blige as wicked witch Evillene and Queen Latifah as The Wiz, the singing is exceptional. Add Amber Riley as the good witch Addapearle and it’s musical theatre heaven. Shanice Williams plays a Dorothy better written that the original: “stubborn, strong, smart”, The Wiz makes her a more interesting heroine and even has a joke about her being a killer. Joined by Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo and David Alan Grier, as the scarecrow, tin-man and lion, not a foot is put wrong as they all follow that yellow brick road.

With an all-black cast long before Hamilton and a famous film, this Tony Award-winning show is a testament to the importance of representation. And it knows it – characters claim that they “represent” more than once. Of course, they shouldn’t have to feel this need. It’s a shame that what should by now be a quaint historical point is still so valid, adding strength in a small way to the arguments of Black Lives Matter. Let’s hope for more than changes in programming when we finally return to theatres for real.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 14 June 2020

Photos by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

“Hairspray” from The Shows Must Go On!

While few would call Marc Shaiman’s adaptation of John Waters’ movie a great musical, it is a lot of fun. And this version, filmed for TV by Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, performed live with a star cast and plenty of cash behind it, really does the piece proud.

Maddie Baillio is a superb Tracy Turnblad, the teen whose adventures we follow and whose body-positive attitude is inspiring. Baillio has an innocent edge and manages to convey how outrageous the character is supposed to seem. Fighting segregation in 1962 Baltimore, through her protests on The Corny Collins TV show, gives this musical a sense of purpose. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book, along with witty lyrics from Shaiman and Scott Wittman, make sure there is merriment alongside messages.

With the exceptions of the opening and closing numbers, Shaiman’s score, while enjoyable, isn’t quite memorable enough. Although good pastiche, with a point to make about how African American music was appropriated into the mainstream, it doesn’t unify into a whole that builds. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics are often better than the tunes themselves.

The production impresses, though, not least with the massive film studio set of a whole street, moving traffic and even rain! Judicious use of split screens is only one example of the impressive camera work – cinematography that also gets the most out of some great choreography which, inexplicably, IMDb doesn’t seem to credit.

Best of all are the characters and cast that, from Hughes’ film onwards, have become much loved and loathed. As well as star cameos from Rosie O’Donnell and Sean Hayes, this version has a lot to boast about. The legendary Harvey Fierstein reprises his role as Edna Turnblad and it really is a marvel to see how much he can get out of punchlines (even when they aren’t that good). Jennifer Hudson makes Motormouth Maybelle’s anthem, Big, Blonde and Beautiful, as rousing as possible – what a voice! Garrett Clayton as Tracy’s love interest, Link, shows surprising depth, while Ariana Grande, as her friend Penny, proves a fine comic actress. Hairspray also has great villains – the mother and daughter Von Tussles. The latter provides a fine role for Dove Cameron, who made me laugh out loud more than once. As for mummy dearest, the spectacular Kristin Chenoweth is a scream every moment she’s on screen. Tracy may be aiming for a “degree in musicology with a minor in ethnic studies” and, secondly (good girl), Link’s affection, but Chenoweth already has a doctorate in giving a divine performance.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 31 May 2020

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith/NBC

“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

“Cats” from The Shows Must Go On!

Having been warned plenty, I’m not one of those traumatised by the recent movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. This recorded version, based on the stage show directed by Trevor Nunn, is a much safer bet. Along with the good causes its availability prompts donations to, it might restore the show’s once considerable reputation.

Taking the poetry of TS Eliot as his lyrics, which Lloyd Webber treats with a good deal of restrained respect, the idea of a cat reincarnation, voted for by its peers, is more than a little mad. And the synth-laden music hasn’t dated well. But, in what’s essentially a song and dance show, the score’s variety suits the “several kinds of cat” we get to meet, and it would be impossible not to like some of the songs.

Take your pick as to your favourite feline: cats curious, conjuring and glamorous, from the railway or the theatre. I liked cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, enlivened by acrobatic work from Drew Varley and Jo Gibb. Performances throughout are strong, as each number provides time in the spotlight to show off talent. Special mention to Michael Gruber’s Munkustrap, who roots the action, and there are star turns from John Mills and Elaine Paige.

Cats worked so well because of the excellent work by choreographer Gillian Lynne. The fact Lloyd Webber renamed the New London Theatre after her surely indicates his debt to her. But the filming here, directed by David Mallet, is to the detriment of the dance. Too much editing adds a pace that was not Lynne’s intention, speeding up movements meant to be stately. There are some (naff) special effects, including, unforgivably, some slow motion! And there are some injudicious close-ups of performers’ bodies that are uncomfortable. Similarly, seeing performers mime licking one another’s faces is one thing from a seat in the circle but it really doesn’t work with a camera up close.

The filming also mistakes Cats’sense of humour and takes itself a little too seriously. Admittedly, Paige plays Grizabella as if she were Covent Garden’s cat. The show’s big hit, Memory, is a serious song. But part of camp is being serious (thanks, Susan Sontag) and there’s no doubt this legendary performance is effective. Along with this, by contrast, deliberately exaggerated playful touches in the staging and score go all out to entertain.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 17 May 2020

“By Jeeves” from The Shows Must Go On!

Far from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest hit, with a complicated history of rewrites, you might think this week’s digital offering – as usual aiming to raise money for charity – is merely a curio. But this PG Wodehouse-inspired piece, with a lot of talent behind it, makes for diverting entertainment, and Webber’s enthusiasm convinces, even if it isn’t contagious.

The book and, even better, the lyrics come from none other than Alan Ayckbourn. Of course, success depends on how much you like Wodehouse (and I don’t). But the crazy capers of the archetypal nice-but-dim toff and his superior butler are true to the spirit of the original. The story of mixed identities and confused romances is well explicated. And those lyrics are the height of sophistication and silliness – again, the perfect reflection of its source. Let’s just say that Wittgenstein is one of many unexpected rhymes.

There are problems. Ayckbourn also directs, and he does so far too slowly. It takes an age for things to get started and the pace doesn’t pick up enough. The songs are good but there aren’t enough of them and, on a couple of occasions, their inclusion seems almost random. The jokes, too many of which revolve around on the conceit of Bertie putting on a show, are too predictable.

The recording offered is based on the production from Pittsburgh’s Goodspeed Opera House and dates from 2001. Cleverly, the show’s small scale is reflected well. And the cast is top notch. John Scherer is appropriately bumbling as Wooster and sounds great. While Jeeves, who only has a speaking role, is performed by Martin Jarvis, who makes the whole thing look so effortless, he could be filming something else when he’s off stage.

The show’s stronger scenes go to the women, in the roles of Honoria Glossop, Madeline Bassett and Stiffy Byng, resulting in strong performances for Donna Lynne Champlin, Becky Watson and Emily Loesser. The men, you see, have the “combined IQ of 42” and, while this is supposed to be increasingly funny, it ends up tiresome. Maybe the show could have been even more knowing? When Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber let go it improves. A crazy finale provides a highlight: ‘It’s A Pig’ about, well, a housebreaking hog, is so odd I’m glad I’ve seen it… even if just the once.

Available on The Show Must Go On! YouTube channel until 10 May 2020

“Love Never Dies” from The Shows Must Go On!

After The Phantom of the Opera last weekend, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s next fund-raising offering was the hit show’s sequel. Ten years after the Opera Populaire burned down, The Phantom has escaped to Coney Island, become a successful producer, and is ready to try and steal his love and muse, Christine Daaé, from her husband Raoul. Excitingly, this is the 2011 production from Melbourne’s Regent Theatre. Regarded as the best version, director Simon Phillips’ bold work makes the most of a piece that, while far from a flop, failed to escape from the shadow of its progenitor.

Phillips plays to the musical’s strengths and adds an aesthetic (with designer Gabriela Tylesova) that, by loosening the historical setting a little, adds genuine spookiness with a touch of Tim Burton. His cast is strong and embraces the better written characters. The play’s meaty plot, which appropriately has a long credit line – Webber, Glenn Slater, Ben Elton and Frederick Forsyth – is delivered with verve throughout. There are still problems: correcting (perceived) shortcomings in its famous original are all very well, but they make for a show that’s crowded and self-conscious, while Slater’s lyrics end up laboured and uninspired. Yet the show is entertaining and interesting. 

Love Never Dies from the Regent's Theatre Melbourne
Ben Lewis and Anna O’Byrne

You might notice some of the characters’ recollections of the past events seem distorted! Each sleight of hand heightens drama and romance, likewise Lloyd Webber’s lush score. Filling out previous events also aids characterisation – both male leads are more complex characters. Ben Lewis’s Phantom is more human and Simon Gleeson’s Raoul more than just a Prince Charming (in fact, he’s a nasty snob and drunk). Both performers’ rich voices make them perfectly cast, and they excel in their scenes of confrontation. It’s a shame the final lead, sung beautifully by Anna O’Byrne, isn’t afforded the same treatment. Christine almost disappears between the men – very naughty. No matter how many times her name is sung (too many), she lacks agency.

Love Never Dies from the Regent's Theatre Melbourne
Paul Tabone, Dean Vince and Emma J Hawkins

Improvements predominate, though, with beefed up roles for Phantom acolytes. Madame Giry is more interesting, allowing Maria Mercedes a chance to shine, and her daughter Meg (did I miss that relationship before?) becomes a major role, delivered superbly by Sharon Millerchip. Their colleagues in Coney Island, a creepy collection with a strong presence, are well delivered by Paul Tabone, Dean Vince and Emma J Hawkins. Best of all is the role of Gustav, Christine’s son, performed here by Jack Lyall – one of the finest younger performers I’ve seen. OK, so you can guess the plot twist. But having a youngster included opens out the story marvellously. It gives Webber’s score a chance to fly, with new musical possibilities, that he grasps to explore his motif of the “pure and unearthly” with considerable sophistication.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 26 April 2020

Photos by Jeff Busby

“The Phantom of the Opera” from The Shows Must Go On!

Available for only 24 hours, this concert production marking 25 years of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical aimed to raise funds for various charities connected with Covid-19. To celebrate such a hit show, with its potent beauty-and-the-beast love triangle, producer Cameron Macintosh didn’t scrimp. The result is tremendous.

Gorgeous costumes, fantastic video projections and, with the Royal Albert Hall standing in for the Palais Garnier that the Phantom made his home, the atmosphere is impressive throughout. The auditorium is skilfully used in the film and – wait for it – the chandelier has fireworks!

The extravagance continues with a plumped-up ensemble and full corps de ballet, including a guest appearance by Sergei Polunin. Appropriately, there’s a star-studded cast, led by Ramin Karimloo in the title role. Karimloo makes a formidable Phantom, his singing muscular and emotions raw. His is a frightened figure, scared of his love for Christine, with hatred of his rival fuelling his insanity.

'The Phantom of the Opera' anniversary concert
Hadley Fraser and Sierra Boggess

The object of his obsession, played by Sierra Boggess, sounds beautiful and is just as well acted. Boggess is great at bringing out the horror in the story and even shows that Christine herself is a good actress. Also, very few people can make a cape work so well for them. Completing the trio of leads, Raoul Vicomte de Chagny, is a poorer role, but Hadley Fraser does well to inject an edge to the character with a ruthless streak that aids the show’s action.

Both the staging and the cast, directed impeccably by Laurence Connor, are wonderful. But the biggest attraction remains Lloyd Webber’s music. Benefitting from a bigger orchestra than usual, it sounds better than ever; the overture to Act Two is gorgeous and the opera music within the show impressive.

How to end such a fantastic event? I’m pleased I kept watching, after the lengthy applause, for the encore – an appearance by the original ‘angel of music’ Sarah Brightman, backed by four former Phantoms! A very special end to a magnificent event that easily deserves donations.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 18 April 2020

“Jesus Christ Superstar” from The Shows Must Go On!

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s generous gift to theatre-goers confined through Covid-19 during the Easter weekend is, appropriately, the passion story. Retold with an exciting rock score and the brilliant lyrics of Tim Rice, it is one of Webber’s most adventurous endeavours, dating from 1970. This arena production from 2012, while not my favourite, is still a real treat.

The production is star-studded and had a TV competition behind it that led to the casting of Ben Forster in the title role. Mel C of the Spice Girls takes the part of Mary Magdalene and Tim Minchin, a personal hero, is Judas. The delivery is clear, nobody sounds unpleasant and they can all perform to big crowds – important given the settings for the tour – indeed, each gets better as the show progresses. But none of the leads is actors. None manages to get beyond their public personas. Minchin still even sports his trademark eye make-up, and the close-ups provided by a filmed performance highlight this shortcoming.

Things are much better with the Pharisees: Pete Gallagher and Gerard Bentall are strong. Best of all is Alexander Hanson’s very classy Pontius Pilate. All three not only sound great but bring depth to their roles. Hanson’s part during the 39 Lashes is a real study in how to hold a stage. These achievements are despite, rather than aided by, director Laurence Connor’s ideas for the show.

There’s a frisson at the start with a suggested connection between Jesus as a revolutionary figure and modern-day rioters, courtesy of filmed news footage. And it’s understandable that the Occupy movement looked like a godsend for someone seeking to do something different with the show. That the hippy vibes from the original can be given a contemporary spin is fair enough. But the idea isn’t thought through or performed with enough skill. While difficult to judge on screen, the choreography looks suspiciously like a work-out routine and the large ensemble appears drafted en masse from the same drama school.

Some of the ideas fail abysmally. Casting the Pharisees as vaguely Masonic makes no sense, likewise having the Temple as some kind of nightclub surely miss the point that both reflect established religion. Instances of social media seem misplaced (cue projected hashtags) and lots of mobile phones are used. Remember that one of Rice’s best lyrics points out, “Israel in 4BC had no mass communication”.

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Chris Moyles and Ben Foster

The insistent temptation to form a connection with the crowd should surely have been resisted when it comes to mainstream media, too. Connor has Herod as a game show host (a very uncomfortable performance from Chris Moyles) while it is the press that interrogates Jesus as a celebrity. Filmed as he falls, as if paparazzi provide a new station of the cross, Forster does well. But you don’t need to be a reporter to ask these questions – the media as the medium are not needed – they quite literally get in the way. The particular power of this musical is that it deals with spirituality so directly, and with such humanity. Connor ignores that strength to the show’s detriment.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 12 April 2020

Photos by Tristram Kenton