Review: Let It Be, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

My brilliant dad brought me up on a sound diet of Beatles, Beatles, Monkeys and more Beatles. I know and love their happy vibe and ability to get a room full of people singing along right from the opening chords. My parents also set me up to adore musical theatre, which has become a life-long passion. For me, musical theatre at its best conjures a spectacle of storytelling wizardry, full of song and (often) dance, that sends your emotions spiralling and leaves you wishing you were up onstage revelling in the fun. When it comes to honouring the musical theatre label, I am in the Michael Billington camp, wanting more from a night at the theatre than the performance of ‘Let It Be – the Beatles Musical‘ had to offer. However, putting the ‘musical theatre’ label aside and accepting the concert for what it is – a journey ‘back to the magical sixties’ and forwards through the decades – made this ‘museum’ experience a foot-tapping and fun family night out for Dad’s birthday treat: and there was a really great sense of the feel-good factor in hearing and seeing favourite songs performed live.

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Act 1 builds gradually through a series of sets addressing the different eras in the rise of Beatlemania. The humble beginnings are shown under the simply lit black box stage of the 1963 Royal Variety performance, where ‘the loveable mopheads’ had graduated from the Cavern. Here the tribute band presented popular but understated classics including ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘She Loves You’ (link to original footage of the Beatles Live in 1964). After a brief interlude where the set is changed and we are treated to era-marking advertising and historical references on the four (large) box televisions surrounding the pros arch, we are reintroduced to the band in their notorious beige tunic uniforms at the Shea Stadium in the USA. Help! is accompanied by footage of fans screaming, crying and fainting to show the growing wave of hysteria in the Beatles fandom. It became distracting to see these short clips looped so often throughout the song (the multimedia side of the production was much better developed by Act 2) as the 1960s crowd reaction served only to highlight the contrast to the quiet and polite behaviour of the Cheltenham audience. We were beginning to wonder whether we were allowed to clap along. Nevertheless, at the opening strains of ‘Twist and Shout‘, excitement rose and we were called to our feet to dance our hearts out and the Everyman audience responded willingly.

Another interlude made way for bigger and better things and the band returned en spectacle. The redressing of the stage and cast saw dry ice with vibrant and colourful lighting arriving alongside the first appearance of the cast’s nouveau moustaches and Lennon’s iconic glasses.  The trademark kitsch Sergeant Pepper uniforms and flower filled set (complete with palm tree) were illuminated in front of psychedelic projections revealing the incoming 70s and reflecting the band’s monetary success and growing flamboyance.

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Although dialogue is minimal, compering is provided, as it would have been, by the ever-polite Paul McCartney, played by Emanuele Angeletti, and the charismatic Michael Gagliano as John Lennon. Both performers nail the accents for their speaking and singing appearances and have clearly devoted many years to studying the idiosyncrasies of their individual characters’ speech patterns and mannerisms. Angeletti (who began working in Beatles’ tribute bands in Italy in 2000) has honed the look and pout of Paul McCartney. He sports the high cheekbones and drooping eyelids, playing coy and bashful to the nth degree. He is spot on with the accent and makes full use of the sideways head bob, all while playing the guitar left handed. Gagliano exudes the Lennon ‘It factor’ and charismatic persona that lights up the stage between songs when he is seen to be goofing around and chiming in with infamous phrases – ‘if you’re in the cheap seats, stamp your feet; everybody else, rattle your jewellery‘- to much delight.

In the second act we are asked to ‘Imagine the reunion that never was‘ and scoot forwards to John Lennon’s birthday in 1980. The lighting turns on the audience. Technology is rocketing forward and the crowd are as much a part of the act as the band. ‘Penny Lane‘ was a crowd favourite accompanied by colourful graphics that were as bonkers and random as the original music videos and lyrics. The only thing missing was the horse montage… even the yellow submarine was there in technicolor.

The band are now very much a distinguishable collection of individuals. Paul McCartney’s smooth locks, sparkling shoulders and shiny black sweatpants are only outshone by Angeletti’s polished two-tone shoes; Gagliano’s Lennon looks younger in double denim and shades to replace his specs; John Brosnan’s, George Harrison – ‘the quiet one’ – side-steps his way to the foreground having cleaned up his hairy act with a white suit; and Ben Cullingworth evolves from being the cute one into superstar drummer as Ringo Starr nods to evolving fashion trends by accessorising his new look with a fashion-over-function scarf and slicked back hair. It is great to see Brosnan and Cullingworth come into their own in this act. We get to hear each owning the lead vocals and the evolving musical styles of songs penned by each of the Beatles’ guitarists: including Angeletti’s solo rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s ‘Blackbird‘, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun and My Sweet Lord, and Lennon’s seminal ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘, which also showcased Gagliano’s talents on the pianoBrosnan’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (originally performed with Eric Clapton) was a touching and impressive tribute whereashearts raced along with the Bond theme Live and Let Die’, written by Paul and Linda McCartney and originally performed by Wings.

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Thankfully the songs had not been forced into a trite storyline for this showcase of the past masters; the unequivocal tribute concert celebrates the evolution of the style and music of one of Britain’s most popular bands – and to that we can twist, shout and throw our hands up in favour. Ultimately, the company provide a great evening out for any Beatles fans wanting to ‘come together’ with a like-minded crowd to enjoy 40 of their favourite tracks played live by performers with a real knack for looking, sounding and behaving like the real thing.

The Let It Be tour continues to Liverpool, Nottingham, Hull, Edinburgh, Dartford and Manchester over the coming weeks.

 

 

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Review: Shrek, on tour, Bristol Hippodrome

William Steig’s picture-book cartoon character, Shrek!, shot to fame in the 2001 DreamWorks animated film and reserved his iconic place in family-favourite history. Boasting a larger than life cast of characters, including a zealous talking donkey and subversive princess, the colourful story was a super selection for musical conversion in 2008.

Click photo to see the Shrek trailer

Ten years on, the musical is touring the UK. It was a shame to see such a sparse audience at the Bristol Hippodrome. No doubt it’s a demoralising challenge when the energy of a production is zapped by an empty auditorium in such a large space. And yet there are several huge performances deserving praise.

Steffan Harri greens-up to play the lovable stink with wry humour and a bouncy step. He is well-matched by his furry friend, Donkey, played by Marcus Ayton, who oozes with cheek and sass. It’s great to hear many of the classic lines from the film, which is rife with layers – like onions, like ogres, in fact – but, at times, the writing seems to hold these characters back and there are some poorly managed, purposeless entrances and exits that left the performances a little ropey around the edges. Part of this is to do with the simplistic set design, pared down for the tour. Although effective and usable, it doesn’t wow like other big musicals on tour and some of the stripped-back stand-in features mean that the fairytale magic is lost.

The pantomime villain is always a gift of a role and Samuel Holmes stands up (ahem!) to the demands of Lord Farquaad’s ‘small’ part. His appearances keep the audience tittering at his comical lines and brilliantly funny attempts to cross the stage at speed on his tiny legs -a gimmick that never seems to get old.

Unfortunately, reality TV star, Amelia Lily is the one who falls short as Princess Fiona. Her vocal talents are well showcased but not matched in her dancing or acting ability, clarity and precision being the main concerns. She is overtaken by some excellent work from the saving-grace Ensemble though and it’s this super bunch whose appearances make the show.

This is a fantastic show for the Ensemble who each assume their own supporting role in the brigade of misfit fairytale creatures, cast by physically and psychologically dwarfed Lord Farquaad into the squalor of Shrek’s swamp, due to their oddities. Tim Haley impresses here with super costumes for all the proudly freaky fairytale creatures, each charmingly unique and full of style. The Ensemble do a credible job with their many costume (and shoe and hair and make-up) changes to also play villagers, guards, tapping rats, blind mice and the cutesy chorus line of Dulocians. (There are some super time-lapse videos of these quick changes on the twitter feed). Their appearances are punctuated with Josh Prince’s choreographic arrangements, under Hugh Vanstone’s fun, colourful and engaging lighting design, bringing the ‘Big, Bright, Beautiful World’ to life.

Among them, Lucinda Shaw’s vocals – behind Tim Haley’s four-man dragon puppet – are on fire. And tiny Jemma Revell also packs an awesome punch flipping between the dainty Sugar Plum Fairy and the hearty belt of the adorably silly Gingerbread man. Jennifer Tierney, as Mama Bear, is another vocalist to note, while her fun-loving on stage husband, Kevin Yates, entertains with some groovy dad-dance moves.

The music has some real highlights with winning references to a host of other shows to satisfy musical geeks in the audience: the Les-Mis inspired ‘Freak Flag’ was a great ensemble number, as were the Duloc parodies of 42nd Street and A Chorus Line. ‘I Think I Got You Beat’ appealed to the masses for its primitive, coarse humour contrasting to the classic musical sing-off duets such as Annie Get Your Gun’sAnything You Can Do, (I Can Do Better)‘, a slightly less gaseous take on competitive flirting. It was a shame to see the wonderful trio version of ‘I Know It’s Today’ omitted in favour of interaction with tacky puppets. This was a great number in the original and exemplifies several cuts that haven’t seemed to benefit the revamped tour. But we left the theatre on a high after the keenly-awaited karaoke-swamp party finale, which drew the better half of the performance to a neat close.

This was a mixed bag of a musical, showcasing a number of hardworking and talented performers, but not quite living up to the original west end production.

Media sourced from https://shrekthemusical.co.uk

Review: Hamilton, an ovation for understudies

It is not a lightly given remark when I describe the production I saw tonight as ‘epic’. The vast scale of what the script deals with alone is magnanimous. And the presentation smacks of daring and absolute reverence in an oh-so-appropriately irreverent way.

‘Hamilton’ emancipates the personal and political, a private and a public tale at risk of slipping out of the American consciousness. It is a historical acknowledgement of a founding father of America whose narrative was thrust into the history books (or so artistic licence will have us accept) by the incredible woman who succeeded him by an impressive 50 Years, in which she worked to honour both his legacy and her own. While the power of the political battles at play were the heart of Act 1 (in my opinion), the emotional battles of Act 2 overwhelmed me with affection, dread and sheer admiration for the characters on stage. There is not just one eponymous Hamilton of note that you learn about in this now infamous history lesson – and what a masterclass it is.

Layers upon layers of symbolism are packed in behind the fast-paced lyrics of this high-speed rollercoaster. We are whisked through an encyclopaedia of musical styles from hip-hop and rap to r’n’b and blues; we are chasing the choreographic details trying to decide where and what to look at with so much on offer; and we are challenged by the controversial and deliberate clash of style and substance. Paul Tazewell’s sumptuous costumes track the subtle changes in fashion through the ages: the switch from corsetry to empire lines and from boots to hose and shoes. Authenticity sits side-by-side with contemporary-modern hairstyling and accessories, highlighting that this is a transcendental story about innovation; about a revolutionary with a complete disregard for convention and a need for forward thinking. This thinking is echoed again in David Korins’ monumental set design which harbours the simplicity of a new age, a church-like provenance, and reminds us of the pioneers’ ships that arrived in America, paving the way for the actions of the founding fathers of the nation. Both the set and ensemble costumes (corsets and jodhpurs) are paired-down, stripped-back to uncover details of the story that former Vice-president, Aaron Burr, pains to admit.

The programme reminds us that many Americans know only snippets from his history, though many will recognise Alexander Hamilton from their ten dollar bills. Brits will likely know even less about the historical events he lived through. The inexhaustible Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer) ensures we go away with more than a full picture of what happened – both on a national and, to some extent, international scale – and the role Alexander Hamilton played in these events. Naturally, the soft side of the personal story is included to enchant us. And yet Hamilton’s private life is anything but; it swings to the fore dealing and receiving blows that impact on the political situation and challenge the family bond.

Tonight’s performance was a true reflection of the power of family, which the slick cast have clearly cultivated among their ranks. We saw a number of outstanding understudies stepping into roles with panache and the instant standing ovation (an overused stasis I usually avoid) was absolutely deserved.

Regular cast member, Rachelle Ann Go played the accepting Eliza Hamilton who unveils tremendous inner-strength. This pint-sized performer held proof that great things come in small packages as she delivered the female-empowering punchline of the show with heart and soul to ensure that lump comes to your throat. Michael Jibson’s mad King George couldn’t disappoint. His entrances were met with glee from the audience who hung on his every pun. These regulars were joined by understudies Ash Hunter (Hamilton), Miriam-Teak Lee (Angelica), Gabriel Mokake (Washington), and Sifiso Mazibuko (Burr).

Mazibuko charmed with his smooth smile, constantly challenging our loyalties despite revealing in the opening sequence that Burr was ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Mokake‘s Washington had soul that packed a punch, even as he aged before our eyes with touching grace. An awesome performance to witness.

Miriam-Teak Lee towers, masterfully, over her co-stars with all the strength and superiority of her referenced female counterpart, Lady Macbeth. And well she may. As Angelica she tells Hamilton to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’ giving him the confidence and determination not to fail, in an awful moment where he is escalated on his pedestal before a calamitous, Aristotelian fall. Lee’s voice is as outstanding as her presence and she epitomises the role-model that Angelica became to both of the Hamiltons. Her rendition of ‘Satisfied’, within the beautifully choreographed (Andy Blankenbuehler) rewind sequence, is both haunting and a mesmerising highlight in the first Act.

And unequivocally excellent, Ash Hunter (the alternate Hamilton) took the lead with every ounce of his being. His Americanised Jean Valjean-esque transition from entertaining, quick-witted youth to broken father is heart-wrenching. As a new-parent watching, his irreparable despair and stillness in ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ stole the show for me. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Yet to have seen the writer himself in his place is a thrill too much to even contemplate. That standing ovation – hugely warranted by tonight’s cast – was, for me, first and foremost for the exceptional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating such an incredible 2 hours and 45 minutes of quick fire, mind-blowing, intertextual mastery. Shakespeare, Jason Robert Brown, Boubil-Schonberg… the list of honours is endless and Miranda certainly earns his place on the pedestal with the geniuses he applauds.