Friday, January 22, 2016

REVIEW: Theatre Pilgrimage in United Kingdom

I spent my Christmas and New Year in the United Kingdom and managed to watch 14 shows: 10 musicals, 3 plays and 1 variety show. While they are of different genre, here's my ranking based on my enjoyment of the show:

  1. Funny Girl
  2. In The Heights
  3. Kinky Boots
  4. Guys and Dolls
  5. Bend It Like Beckham
  6. Ben Hur
  7. Mr. Foote's Other Leg
  8. Shrek
  9. Elf
  11. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
  12. Wendy and Peter Pan
  13. Close to You
  14. The Ken Dodd Happiness Show

Here's my impression of the shows (in chronological order):

Tricycle Theatre (London), Friday December 18

I chose Ben Hur in particular because it will be first night in London. I thought that I would need something funny to keep me awake from my jet-lag and indeed it worked! 

From the team behind The 39 Steps and billed as “One of the most authentic versions of ancient Rome ever seen”, the production promises a "103% bona fide chariot race featuring real chariots, a sea battle with real water and a decadent and unexpurgated Roman orgy that is suitable for all ages." Somehow, I think it might have just avoided from false advertising charges by a hair.

The truth is that I have never seen the movie before; thus to be able to appreciate the parody, I watched the movie before I went to London. With the movie fresh in my mind, the parody worked extremely well. As if the story in the movie was not enough, Patrick Barlow created a play within a play, complete with a love triangle among the cast members. The pace was fast and furious; and the gags worked extremely well.

Cast: Alix Dunmore, Richard Durden, John Hopkins, Ben Jones 
Author: General Lew Wallace 
Adapted by: Patrick Barlow 
Director: Tim Carroll 
Producer: Fiery Angel and Tricycle Theatre 
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday 
Movement Director: Siân Williams 
Sound: Ben and Max Ringham

Adelphi Theatre (London), Saturday December 19

This is one of the few shows that I was truly looking forward to see and was not disappointed with it. Based on the 2005 comedy film about a son who reluctantly inherits his father’s shoe factory, this Tony Award-winning musical was big in heart and high in spirit.

At the core of this musical is a really good story about personal journey and coming to terms who one really is; and more important is that it was told in a light and easy way. The performers were very good and balanced with the leads standing out for the good and right reasons. Killian Donnelly’s Charlie Price (who inherited the struggling shoe factory) was a very likeable character and Donelly ensured that we will all root for him in his struggle. Matt Henry's Lola, on the other hand, (who was tasked to help re-invent the shoe business) was every inch a flamboyant diva, though he can also be disarmingly vulnerable in conflict moments.

Overall, it was an extremely entertaining musical... but does it really deserve to win the Tony Award for Best Musical over Matilda? Nah....
Cast: Killian Donnelly, Matt Henry, Amy Ross, Amy Lennox, Jamie Baughan, Michael Hobbs, Marcus Collins, Gemma Atkins, Paul Ayers, Emma Crossley, Jeremy Batt, Arun Blair-Mangat, Jordan Fox, Callum Francis, Robert Grose, Gillian Hardie, Chloe Hart, Sophie Isaacs, Luke Jackson, Robert Jones, Adam Lake, Catherine Millsom, Sean Needham, Tim Prottey-Jones, Verity Quade, Javier Santos, Dominic Tribuzio, Alan Vicary, Michael Vinsen, Bleu Woodward 
Director: Jerry Mitchell 
Music by: Cyndi Lauper 
Lyrics by: Cyndi Lauper 
Book by: Harvey Fierstein 
Costume: Gregg Barnes 
Lighting Designer: Kenneth Posner 
Set Designer: David Rockwell 
Sound: John Shivers 

Phoenix Theatre (London), Saturday December 19

Written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, who worked on the original hit film starring Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, This musical version of Bend It Like Beckham was both a hit and a miss. The musical tells the story of Jess, a young woman with a big decision to make, should she live the life her family expects her to live or chase her dream in sports.

Watching this musical made me wonder what it would looked and sounded like in the original West End production. But wait, this IS the original West End production, so why is it that there is so many elements in it that looked and sounded so amateur?

Bend It Like Beckham as a musical definitely works, creator/ director Gurinder Chadha ensured that the story unfolded at a rhythmic pace and the audiences are transported and inspired by it. On the other hand, composer Howard Goodall and lyricist Charles Hart provided voices that are anchored emotionally and melodiously. Where it went wrong was the rest. The cast, choreography and set design are not what one expects in a production in West End. Mind you, they were not horrible, they were just not nuanced and polished enough.

Will I go and see it again? Maybe. Will I recommend it? Yes.
Cast: Natalie Dew, Lauren Samuels, Jamie Muscato, Sophie-Louise Dann, Jamal Andréas, Preeya Kalidas, Natasha Jayetileke, Tony Jayawardena, Sohm Kapila, Buckso Dhillon-Woolley, Harveen Mann, Irvine Iqbal, Karl Seth, Sejal Keshwala, Serina Mathew, Sharan Phull, Rakesh Boury, Jorell Coiffic-Kamall, Tom Millen, Daniel Bolton, Raj Bajaj, Michelle Bishop, Lisa Bridge, Chloe Chambers, Genesis Lynea, Kirstie Skivington, Danielle Young, Rekha Sawhney, Shahid Khan, Kayleigh McKnight 
Author: Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha 
Director: Gurinder Chadha 
Music by: Howard Goodall 
Lyrics by: Charles Hart 
Producer: Sonia Friedman Productions 
Choreographer: Aletta Collins 
Costume: Katrina Lindsay 
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin 
Set Designer: Miriam Buether 
Sound: Richard Brooker

Menier Chocolate Factory (London), Sunday December 20

FUNNY GIRL is a tricky one. I was looking forward to seeing it because it is rarely staged since its 1964 Broadway premiere; and because I actually believe that no one but Barbra Streisand could pull it off. I went to the performance knowing that the show was well received, but don't know much about the leading lady Sheridan Smith.

During the first 15 minutes of the show, I was pretty convinced that I will not like the show. Sheridan Smith is short and chubby and doesn't particularly has a spectacular voice... in short, nowhere near Barbra Streisand. However, as the show moved on, one forgets Streisand and by the end of the show, Smith totally owns the show. Smith provided an earth-bound character with knows-no-bounds eagerness for love and approval. 

The production was simple and sleek as one would expect in a small theatre like the Menier. The set and lighting were very effective and the rest of the cast were most competent. I am glad to see Darius Campbell in the role of Nick Arnstein (I last saw him in the undeservingly short-lived musical From Here to Eternity). He was every inch (all 6'4") the man that almost no one would resist. I particularly love the moment when the wedding picture showing his height difference Smith was passingly walked through the stage.

This is definitely the best show I have seen during my trip and I would love to see how this petite show translates to a bigger stage like the Savoy Theatre. 
Cast: Valda Aviks, Natasha J Barnes, Emma Caffrey, Darius Campbell, Matthew Croke, Marilyn Cutts, Joelle Dyson, Rebecca Fennelly, Luke Fetherston, Leah Harris, Kelly Homewood, Sammy Kelly, Maurice Lane, Bruce Montague, Joel Montague, Stuart Ramsay, Sheridan Smith, Gay Soper 
Adapted by: Harvey Fierstein 
Director: Michael Mayer 
Music by: Jule Styne 
Lyrics by: Bob Merrill 
Book by: Isobel Lennart 
Choreographer: Lynne Page 
Costume: Matthew Wright 
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson 
Set Designer: Michael Pavelka 
Sound: Richard Brooker 

Dominion Theatre (London), Monday December 21

Elf is one of the most disappointing show I've seen; and the only saving grace of this show was the fact that it is an inherently entertaining show to watch. Was it justified to be the most expensive show in West End? Absolutely not. Everything about the show shouted "tour", which means that everything tends to be flimsy with designs that didn't really fit the stage and performers that were very average. 

Of the 14 shows I have seen, Elf ranks 9th. The fundamental material of the musical is good. It has a good story and book; and the music was jolly and hummable. What really annoyed me was pretty much the whole production design in relation to the cost of the tickets. Ben Forster has a beautiful voice but he was too sophisticated to convincingly play the naive Buddy the elf. Kinberley Walsh was also too sophisticated to play the jaded love interest of Ben Forster's Buddy; she in fact looked like she was tired and bored with the role. 
Cast: Ben Forster, Kimberley Walsh, Joe McGann, Jessica Martin, Jennie Dale, Mark McKerracher, Graham Lappin
Book by: Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin
Music by: Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by: Chad Beguelin
Director and Choreographer: Morgan Young
Musical Director and Supervisor: Stuart Morley
Production Designed by: Tim Goodchild
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Video Designer: Ian William Galloway
Sound Designer: Clem Rawling for MAC Sound 

King's Cross Theatre (London), Monday December 21

This ranks second in my list and it was a great show. I love the fact that the setting and the stage configuration is different. The stage is set like a runway with the audiences assigned to both sides of the runway. The performers fluidly enter and exit on either ends of the runway. From the audience perspective, it was almost like witnessing a slice of the neighborhood while walking down the street.

I saw a staging of this musical back in 2011 in Manila, and really enjoyed it. At first, I was concern that I wouldn't like the rapping in the musical, but I actually quite like it as it was used quite fittingly. The performers were all top-notch, really can't find a any fault. The one thing though that stood out in this production was the beautiful choreography executed by technically competent dancers.

I would love to see it again.
Cast: David Bedella, Josie Benson, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, Sugababe Jade Ewen, Sam Mackay, Sarah Naudi, Eve Polycarpou, Lily Frazer, Antoine Murray-Straughan, Joe Aaron Reid, Cleve September, Jocasta Almgill, Courtney-Mae Briggs, Michael Cortez, Gabriela Garcia, Reiss Hinds, Alexandra Sarmiento, Spin
Director: Luke Sheppard
Music by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lyrics by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Choreographer: Drew McOnie

Savoy Theatre (London), Tuesday December 22

I almost didn't go and see this musical, mainly because I have seen it several time before. However, there's was not a lot of musicals in London that I haven't seen and among those I haven't seen, this was the more attractive. Having said that, I LOVE IT!!!

I really can't say that the set was grand or spectacular. It was simple and yet extremely effective. It captured the glitz and naughtiness of the musical and left a lot of space for the audience to focus on the performers. The cast were fantastic. When the four principals came out, I thought that they were a bit old for the roles, but as an ensemble and by the virtue of their fabulous portrayal, I actually quite enjoyed them. I particularly like Jamie Parker as Sky Masterson. He is not particularly good-looking, but he definitely has the suave and voice to lure the likes of Siubhan Harrison's Sarah Brown.

Another aspect of this show that stood out was the dance. I noted that there were two choreographers, though I am not sure who did what. Having said that, there was certainly a renewed energy in the interpretation of this musical. They were not just there to entertain, but was there to contribute dramatically.
Cast: Sophie Thompson, Jamie Parker, David Haig, Siubhan Harrison, Gavin Spokes, Ian Hughes, Neil McCaul, Nic Greenshields, Cornelius Clarke, William Oxborrow, Lorna Gayle, Carl Patrick, Lucy Jane Adcock, Abigail Brodie, Momar Diagne, Lavinia Fitzpatrick, Selina Hamilton, Frankie Jenna, Jacob Maynard, Genevieve Nicole, Max Parker, James Revell, Giovanni Spano, Jonathan Stewart, Lucie-Mae Sumner, Liam Wrate 
Author: Damon Runyon 
Director: Gordon Greenberg 
Music by: Frank Loesser 
Lyrics by: Frank Loesser 
Book by: Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows 
Choreographer: Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright 
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell 
Sound: Paul Groothuis

National Theatre Olivier (London), Tuesday December 22

Ugh... not sure what to say... 

The concept was good and even though there's tons of weirdness, that is what one should expect isn't it? This is a play on Alice in Wonderland. The performers were good, but the failure of this musical lies in the more fundamental aspect of the work, that it it has a poor book with worse music.

Also, while the designs are creative, they never feel like they were cohesive. Having said that, peculiarly, I would want to go and see it again... give it a second chance. Don't ask me why.
Cast: Simon Anthony, Sam Archer, Carly Bawden, Lois Chimimba, Leon Cooke, Nadine Cox, Ivan De Freitas, Hal Fowler, Anna Francolini, Adrian Grove, Paul Hilton, Joshua Lacey, Dylan Mason, Daisy Maywood, Enyi Okoronkwo, Lisa Ritchie, Stephanie Rojas, Abigail Rose, Golda Rosheuvel, Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, Ed Wade, Witney White 
Author: Lewis Carroll 
Director: Rufus Norris 
Producer: National Theatre 
Choreographer: Javier De Frutos 
Costume: Katrina Lindsay 
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable 
Set Designer: Rae Smith 
Sound: Paul Arditti

Theatre Royal Haymarket (London), Wednesday December 23

I am not big with plays, but every now and then when there's not much else to see and if one is traveling with a friend who prefers plays, I am more than willing to give in to one or two. And it is plays like this that may somehow convert me. 

Simon Russell Beale was aboslutely brilliant in the role of Samuel Foote, the 18th century satirist and comedian Samuel Foote. Transferring to the West End following a sold-out run at the Hampstead Theatre, the play charts the story of Foote as he becomes a celebrity in London. The transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket marks an appropriate move for this production as Foote was both theatre manager and a performer at the venue. 

For people who are more knowledgeable about the theatre history in UK, this play is absolutely a must-see. It was very cleverly written and the staging was just right, right to elaborate but highly atmospheric.
Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Dervla Kirwan, Joseph Millson, Micah Balfour, Jenny Galloway, Ian Kelly, Forbes Masson, Colin Stinton, Sophie Bleasdale, Joshua Elliott
Author: Ian Kelly
Director: Richard Eyre
Producer: Michael Codron, Anthony Pye-Jeary and Greg Ripley-Duggan for Hampstead Theatre

Criterion Theatre (London), Wednesday December 23

I found this under MUSICAL in the Official London Theatre website; and it shouldn't be there. This is just a mini concert with jazzed up tune of Burt Bacharach sang one after another. The set was very interesting, but it was simply there to make all the singing interesting. Thanks to The Ken Dodd Happiness Show, this was saved from being the worst show in my list.

Cast: Kyle Riabko 
Director: Steven Hoggett 
Music by: Burt Bacharach 
Lyrics by: Hal David 
Producer: David Lane Seltzer for Entertainment 360 
Costume: Matthew Wright 
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin 
Set Designer: Christine Jones and Brett Banakis 
Sound: Richard Brooker

The Sherman Theatre (Cardiff), Thursday December 24

I really do not need to see this show, but I thought that since there is a slight possibility that I might move or travel to Cardiff more often, I should really checkout this theatre and see just how good or bad it is.

I personally did not expect that I would like this show as I have never like this C.S. Lewis story... book or movie, I never liked it. There's something about it being an allegory of Christ's crucifixion that put me off. The end-result? It was better than I expected, but I wouldn't want to go see it again. The staging was creatively functional and the performers were not too bad. Overall, the whole thing was just a bit better than average.

Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff), Sunday December 26 

I have seen SHREK when it was playing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London; even then, I didn't particularly like it. However, since it is the only decent thing showing at the Wales Millennium Centre and because my friends in Cardiff haven't seen it, I thought I should give it another try... well, my verdict remains the same as my previous review. In isolation, the different elements of the musical seemed to be not bad… in fact, quite good. However, while the music (by Jeanine Tesori) is good, they didn’t seem to build-up the musical. The songs just floated happily throughout and only somehow climaxed with a 1966 song I’m a Believer. 



Royal Shakespeare Theatre (Stratford-Upon-Avon), Sunday December 27

Part of the reason why I didn't enjoy this production is because I can't get over the fact that I didn't like what they did to the theatre. My first experience with the theatre was back in 2006 when I went to see Dame Judi Dench in RSC's Merry Wives of Windsor. The theatre was a regular one with defined proscenium. This newly transformed theatre that opened in 2010 has a thrust stage. There's nothing wrong with the thrust stage except that all the columns in the theatre suddenly don't make sense. If you are an audience sitting upstage, your view will be practically restricted by two to three columns... anyway...

This version of Peter Pan was more about Wendy. It was about a inspired teenager who wants to be courageous and strong. It was also a play where she talked about her feelings a lot, including her grief for her dead brother Tom, who she was convinced was taken by Pan to Neverland.

The set, costume and lighting design were excellent. My other big problem was that none of the actors plating kids (except for Sam Clemmett playing Tom) were convincing. They all looked by a bunch of adults pretending to be kids. Yes, of course they were real adults, but they all seem to have the notion that all kids acted like they are mentally challenged... something they must have thought was cute, but I just find it annoying.
Cast: Simon Carroll-Jones, Cavan Clarke, Sam Clemmett, James Corrigan, Darell D’Silva, Mariah Gale, Adam Gillen, Susan Hingley, Jack Homer, Rebecca Johnson, Paul Kemp, Arthur Kyeyune, David Langham, Douggie McMeekin, Jordan Metcalfe, Charlotte Mills, Mimi Ndiweni, Dodger Phillips, Laura Prior, Rhys Rusbatch, Patrick Toomey, Lawrence Walker, Harry Walker, Jay Webb, Dan Wheeler
Director: Jonathan Munby
Designer: Colin Richmond
Lighting: Oliver Fenwick
Music: Olly Fox

Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Tuesday December 28

It was not my idea to go and see this. I don't know who Ken Dodd is. My friends were explaining that he was huge when they were kids. 

Anyway, we went to the theatre late deliberately. After finding out that the show lasted up till 1am the previous night, me and my friends thought that we really shouldn't sacrifice our dessert for Ken Dodd. Upon entering the theatre, I noticed that it was full. There was a guy on stage and he could have been speaking German. There was a slur in his enunciation that made me think that he either had a stroke sometime ago or his dentures are loose. After a while, I somehow got used to his sound and I started to understand about 50%. Some of his jokes are okay, but most of the times...

After his section, there came somebody who sang a few songs and then a fat woman who also sang and danced. At this point, I excused myself to go to the toilet. I got out of the toilet and thought of checking out if there is news in my BBC apps... the next thing I know, all my friends also came out of the theatre... so we left early.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

REVIEW: CLOSE UP- Udderbelly

Udderbelly (Central), Tuesday January 19

This one-hour “circus” show is entitled CLOSE UP. It was then followed with the copy "See. Hear. Feel. Everything." and there was also something about it being a "glorious, chaotic abstraction" and "most intimate show" in the Udderbelly Festival programme. Who wouldn't be intrigued by that? 

Live performances in a theatre can be "close up" up to a certain degree, perhaps if you are in the first few rows. If not however, modern technology can help. In Madonna's Rebel Heart concerts in big arenas, one gets big screens relaying closer view of the on-stage business; or in Puppetry of the Penis in small theatres, one gets a big screen relaying way-too-close view of the origami unfolding (or folding) at the groin of the performers. However, in CLOSE UP, there was a big screen and there were few moments of pre-recorded footages showing close-ups of acts in slow motion. And that's it. Maybe the "close up" in the title was not a literal one. Was it about individual personalities of the four performers coming into focus? Peculiarly, their personalities were way less self-telling than what I have seen in performers of other acrobatic shows.

Apart from the baggage of the title and the marketing copy, this show by Brisbane-based performance company Circa was in fact enjoyable. The four performers managed to showcase some truly amazing acts; a routine on the Chinese pole with nail-biting feats, a woman in back bend position holding up the weight of a man on top of her, some elegantly frightening rope work and a lot of hoops being thrown and hula hooped around. It was wonderful to watch the four performers working tirelessly act after act to keep the momentum of the show flowing. They were so earnest that when they fail and try again, one can't help but root for them to succeed.

Well, at least it was indeed a "glorious, chaotic abstraction".


Friday, January 8, 2016

Review: A Simple Space - Udderbelly

Udderbelly (Central), Thursday January 7

A Simple Space by Australia's Gravity & Other Myths is like an amalgamation of circus and game show, minus the glitz and glamour but plus loads of child-like energy and enthusiasm.

True to the name of this piece of work, it highlighted how a performance space and production can be simple, pared down and intimate, yet extremely effective. Apart from occasional small set piece or props on stage, the square stage was most of the time bare. Lightings were supplied by small spotlights mounted on a post in each corner of the stage; and they were controlled by the performers themselves via common household switches also mounted on the post. Costumes were mainly shorts and t-shirts, while music came from an electronic drum set played and managed by one of the performers. And that's where the "simple" ended.

This one-hour show with 8 performers did a lot of what acrobats would do but inject it with tons of wit, humor, silliness and some serious non-acrobatic skills like stripping, throwing balls at the audience and solving a Rubik's Cube. It is this winning formula that made the show funny and fun. This show took a lot of what "normal" kids should be playing these days and catapulted it to a new height. The jumping rope got an acrobatic twist, the breath-holding game became a handstand endurance feat; and balloon twisting was... well just balloon twisting. With all the merriment and madness came nerve-wracking dose of risks; and awe-inspiring showcase of courage, strength and flexibility. Even though some of the moments when the performers try to involve the audience were seemingly pointless, one can’t help but forgive them on the account of their keenness and charisma.

I truly enjoyed the show. Apart from the less family-friendly ticket prices (HK$385 to HK$523), I would recommend this wonderful show. Be prepared to be surprised, afraid and happy!