Monday, 16 July 2012

Chicago Tour Review: Wales Millennium Centre, Saturday 14th July 8.30pm

I have to admit that I’ve never been too fussed to see the stage production of ‘Chicago’. I loved the film but hearing other theatre goers report back that the film version is superior I was dissuaded. I thought if everyone is saying it, surely it must be disappointing – the people saying this were theatre fans and not the kind of people to usually rate film over live performance.

But since the tour was coming to Cardiff, near to where I live, and my sister said this was one she’d really like to see I decided to buy tickets for my sister, my mum and myself. They enjoy theatre but aren’t fanatical about it like me.

For once I had tickets in the circle, rather than the stalls. I booked quite late and, since this is a show that appeals to many, tickets were few. However, I think the circle is a good choice for a show of this nature – a show that focuses strongly on the dance aspect over any other. Having an overview in this circumstance is more important than being seated in a position where you get a good perspective of acting.

When you enter the auditorium there is simply a chair set on stage downstage right with a hat a top it lit with a spot. The rest of the stage is in darkness.

As the show begins you are presented with the set which remains a consistent from start to finish. It’s a rather stage dominating construction – a cutaway of a jazz club upon which are seated the actual orchestra for the show. Yes, the orchestra are on stage for the whole performance (I’d already heard this before, though I hadn’t realised just how much of the stage they dominated). This leaves a very narrow playing area downstage. There is a little corridor of space either side of the set but this is mainly used as a seating area for chorus when they are not needed in a particular song.

This all has its purpose of course. The idea is to create the feel that we are watching a performance in one of the old jazz clubs. Chicago is presented as a city obsessed with ‘sex, jazz and liquor’ and all the characters are so seduced by this lifestyle that they play out the stories of their lives in this way.

           “in this town, murder is a form of entertainment”.

The problem with this set up is it can feel quite bland at times – especially in the more intimate numbers. They’ve tried to create some sense of location through lighting, such as jail cell bars lit on the floor for the prison scenes but this left me a bit cold.

It’s the dancing that is the key standout feature of ‘Chicago’. This is no real revelation as Fosse is always centred on dance but it really is this that Chicago’s strength rides upon.  (Well, that and the fact it’s notorious for stunt casting. Meeeeow)

So onto the principle performances:-

Weak generally – none of them really blew me away.

Ali Bastian’s portrayal of Roxie Hart was lacking – the singing was weak, the dancing – just okay. And perhaps this could have been forgiven if she’d delivered a convincing character but I really wasn’t feeling it. When I then looked in the programme at the interval to read more about her background and noticed she’d played Becca Dean in Hollyoaks, I couldn’t help but spend the rest of the performance comparing her to her Hollyoaks colleague, Carley Stenson, who’s fresh in my memory from seeing her in Shrek recently.

Tupele Dorgu delivered a decent performance of Velma Kelly. Again, her singing wasn’t very strong but the tone was pleasant and she portrayed the character’s single minded hardness and lust for the Chicago lifestyle to a good standard. It says in the programme that she’s “delighted to be playing Velma Kelly, a role she’s always wanted to play” and I think this shows – she seems to have worked hard to get the character right.

The best of the leads, though, was Stefan Booth as Billy Flynn. Although not a skilled singer either, he has the charisma and stage presence one would expect of this character. Towards the end of the show his voice did start to suffer, though – it sounded like he really needed to cough, which then made me want to cough (because I’m sooo empathetic). This makes me concerned about his stamina and ability to keep up the same level of performance for the rest of his stint on the tour.  

Bernie Nolan was as to be expected as Mama Morton – good singing but lacking any real character and I felt that since Amos doesn’t do a lot of dancing that he should at least be a great singer – unfortunately that wasn’t the case with Jamie Baughan who was acceptable but I just didn’t warm to his Amos – and that’s the one character you should be able to warm to.

The chorus were the stars of this show, though, and I’m pleased they were each individually acknowledged at the bows.

My favourite scenes were the ones which made use of these outstanding dancers, especially during the Billy Flynn scenes.  ‘All I Care About is Love’ was one of my favourites with the girls carrying large white tail like feathers which caught the light beautifully as they twirled them around Billy Flynn.

‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ was also brilliantly choreographed and the scene I’d been looking forward to most of all for that famous ‘puppet act’ which was done perfectly by all, credit where it’s due.

‘Razzle Dazzle’ was another highlight with most of the technical budget being thrown into this. It was the most exciting visually, with a lighting baton being lowered from the flys to the floor, uplighting some of the chorus members and ‘razzle dazzling’ us as they shake their tinsel pompoms which sparkle as they catch the light, then raining down little pieces of ‘razzle dazzle’ during a pyro effect, leaving the stage glittering for the rest of the show.

I also really liked the ridiculousness of the re-enactment of Fred Casley’s murder; Very in tradition with the old vaudeville performances with the overacting and exaggerated movements. It reminded me of an episode of Family Guy where they mock William Shatner’s acting.

This is one of those incredibly rare occasions where I would have to agree with the majority and say the film incarnation of ‘Chicago’ is superior to the stage version. I like the fact that in the film there is actually a substantial story playing out in real life around Roxie’s jazz obsessed delusions, rather than just feeling like we’re watching a story within a vaudeville performance. Although the latter may have been the original vision for Chicago, I do prefer a strong, concrete storyline in my musicals.

Chicago is continuing to tour around the UK until the end of the year. Please check their website for venues near you, more information & to book tickets. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Review: Shrek the Musical, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Friday 22nd June 7.30pm

If you’re looking for a feel good musical that’s pure smiles and an original score (barring ‘I’m a Believer’ of course) then this is the show for you.

I’ve seen other reviewers say it’s a little too panto but I think that’s okay for a show like this. It’s a fairy tale, essentially – a fairy tale for a modern generation - and since panto is all about the fairy tales too, I think this fits. So, if you hate panto then this isn’t the show for you!

It has the hero in Shrek himself, the ‘damsel in distress’ in Princess Fiona (who turns out to be nothing of the sort), the archetypical panto ‘baddie’ in Farquaad and the side kick in Donkey; All these being staple characters of the pantomime tradition.

As my first introduction into theatre was panto, I was more than happy to get lost in this magical and ridiculously silly world and reconnect with the child who first fell in love with theatre. From the moment the show began and the colourful story book set opened up I had a beaming smile on my face which stayed with me after the curtains fell.

My favourite character had to be Lord Farquaad played by Neil McDermott. Given that this is a role that requires shuffling around on his knees, it was always going to be hilarious. But it’s his facial expressions that really round off the ridiculousness of this character. Every expression is comically exaggerated aided by the absurdly drawn on eyebrows.

Carley Stenson as Princess Fiona was a surprise to me. Anyone who watched Hollyoaks in the last few years will know she played Steph – a character who was very much a wannabe performer who didn’t quite have the skills in singing, dancing or acting. So it came as quite a shock to witness her doing all three to a high standard – particularly the singing which she does beautifully. This can only be a testimony to what a versatile performer she is.  

Dean Chisnall is quite a trooper as Shrek in that rather cumbersome get up – I feel hot just thinking about having to wear all that padding and make up under the lighting but Dean shows no sign of discomfort. He gives a strong and assured performance and is, naturally, the linchpin on which this production balances.

There was one cast member that I felt really let the otherwise strong team down. Richard Blackwood as Donkey. He managed to really capture Donkeys irritating side without adding any of the endearing qualities that Eddie Murphy manages to portray, through voice acting alone, in the films. He also couldn’t really grasp the accent and it ended up just sounding quite grating. I’d have really liked to have seen one of the understudies in this role, which, rather frustratingly, if I’d have gone on the Saturday would have happened.

I was very impressed with the costumes & make up – whether that be creating the wooden puppet look for the actor playing Pinocchio or simply painting on bright and sparkling make up on the witches and fairies.

**Spoiler Alert**
One of my favourite scenic elements happens during a song that I’ve never been particularly fond of from the Original Broadway Cast Recording and that’s ‘The Travel Song’. The scene starts of simply with a rolling painted scene in a pastiche of ‘The Lion King’ behind a sign post in the centre of the stage. Towards the end of the song Shrek & Donkey stand in front of this signpost and it the platform splits and lifts, creating 2 pillars stage left and stage right with a rope bridge stretching between them. It’s still quite a technically simple achievement but it’s visually pleasing and works well.
**End Spoiler**

My very favourite scenic element, though, has to be the dragon puppet. It’s a huge puppet that took four people to manoeuvre and control it. I was quite mesmerised by the lead puppeteer (who, it seems from the programme is the puppet himself – Pinocchio – played by Jonathan Stewart) who has to lead the dragon and control the mouth movement and the blinking. It must have taken some rehearsal to coordinate this scene.

Talking of the dragon’s scene – the song has been changed from the Broadway version. ‘Donkey Pot Pie’ is gone and a song called ‘Forever’ takes its place. ‘Forever’ is a much better song, in my opinion, showing off the singers range and skill. It was difficult to pick up the lyrics, however, as there seemed to be a general problem with sound levels with the orchestra often drowning out the singing.

There’s also been another change to the score – ‘Build a Wall’ has been cut completely which I was quite disappointed about as I like this song but they must have had their reasons and it isn’t really  a song to move the story forward – it’s more about Shrek having a sulk.

I was really looking forward to seeing ‘Freak Flag’ being performed by all the fairy tale characters as this is my favourite song from the soundtrack and they all performed it perfectly. It was so energetic, powerful, bright and colourful. I do wonder if Pinocchio is ever tempted to replace ‘stand up to Farquuad’ with ... ... well I’m sure you can figure that out. If not, click here. I know that’s what I sing when I sing along in the shower.

I also have to mention a nice little touch before the show began. An announcement came over the tannoy in the voice of the Fairy Godmother. She said she has three wishes before the show can begin (1) no photography (2) turn of mobile phones and (this last one I loved) (3) please unwrap any noisy sweets before the show begins. I’ve never heard this asked at another show and yet it’s one of the main pet peeves of theatre goers.  It was such a cleverly non-confrontational way of asking too, which given the nature of this show, could only be done at Shrek the Musical.

While this show may not completely blow you away, it’ll certainly leave you with a huge smile & a feeling of lightness (lightness  from woes, hopefully, not gas - though maybe both if you decide to join in with the fart-off in ‘I Think I’ve Got You Beat’).

Shrek the Musical is currently at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Please visit the website for more information & to book tickets.