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    Culture, Theatre

    The King and I at the Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

    THE KING AND I by Rodgers and Hammerstein 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

    Following a Broadway run, a sell out record breaking season in London’s West End, the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I has landed in Birmingham and it is gloriously lavish affair.

    Set in 1860s Bangkok, the critically-acclaimed production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s, fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s novel.

    The musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna, the British schoolteacher whom the King brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children. This all takes place during an interesting time for Siam (or Thailand as it is currently known), where the kingdom is facing the ever-increasing presence of the modern Western powers of France, Britain and the United States of America on its traditionally imperialistic country.

    THE KING AND I by Rodgers and Hammerstein, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

    Heading to Birmingham direct from its record-breaking season at The London Palladium, the musical is directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher and stars West End’s Annalene Beechey and Broadway’s Jose Llana.

    Jose Llana as the King of Siam plays a king who is strong-willed but dealing with a lot of upheaval, as Western powers close in on his country, threatening the imperialism under which he rules. These tempestuous times are echoed in his own Palace as Anna challenges the King’s views on women and fidelity in particular. But it is Llana’s ability to play up to the comedic moments of the play with such exaggerated facial expression which has the audience in stitches.  Returning to Birmingham, West End’s Annalene Beechey perfectly embodies the headstrong yet idealistic schoolteacher Anna and wears the heaving Victorian gowns, floating around the stage like they’re little more than a feather.

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    The forbidden romantic sub-plot between Tuptim (played by Paulina Yeung) and her lover Lun Tha (played by Ethan Le Phong) adds another layer to this rich musical.  The lovers catch moments together in the garden, decorated on stage with 22,000 flowers, each made by hand, which goes to show you the workmanship on display in the production.

    Running at nearly three hours (including interval) it is perhaps a longer play than usual but it is utterly captivating and the time flies. As with any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the songs are well-known songs, and include the likes of; Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, and Shall We Dance. It is easy to see why this classic from the golden age of musicals is so well loved.

    If this truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness the very best in romantic musical theatre, then you simply must go – you won’t be disappointed.

    As part of its world tour, The King and I is at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from 10th December until Saturday 4th January 2020. For tickets or more information, visit https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-king-and-i/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/

    This was a press event. Photos and copyright belong to Johan Persson.

    Culture, Theatre

    Amelie the Musical at The Alexandra Birmingham

    034_Amelie The Musical_Pamela Raith Photography

    Based on the 2001 film starring Audrey Tautou and Matthieu Kassovitz, the movie was the highest-grossing French-language film released in the United States and nominated for five Oscars, as well as winning a number of awards including several BAFTAs.  So it’s hardly surprising that it would be developed for the stage, although with its cutaway scenes and eccentric storyline, it was never going to be the easiest to reinterpret.

    Thankfully the production does it superbly, keeping the eccentric charm of the movie, whilst also including some even more peculiarities, which will delight and confuse the audience in equal measure…which is pretty much a fair description of the storyline.

    013_Amelie The Musical_Pamela Raith Photography

    Amelie the Musical is the story of Amelie Poulain, a young woman who was sheltered from the outside world as a child, due to an over-protective father and a neurotic mother, who died in a tragic and unique accident.  As an adult she works in a cafe in France, but her vivid imagination is where she takes solace.  An idealist and a dreamer, Amelie sees a series of small ways in which she can bring happiness to the people around her and goes about bringing some acts of kindness. Along the way she encounters Nino, a man who collects the photographs discarded at photo booths and Amelie develops feelings for him. When she realises he is trying to discover the mystery of the man who leaves behind a series of photos in booths at train stations and she is determined to help, she risks losing her heart to Nino.

    French-Canadian actress Audrey Brisson plays the titular role of Amélie Poulain and really brings her to life, offering the vulnerable, aloof, wide-eyed innocence that makes Amelie so lovable.

    073_Amelie The Musical_Pamela Raith Photography

    Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the score.  Whilst the music of Yann Tiersen for the movie was wonderful, the musical stage show has a completely new set of songs created by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé.  Taking on a more folk style, the musicians are integrated with the performance, both as supporting characters and extras.  It really adds to the charm and the idea that threads through the story of a sense of interwoven actions having consequences.

    Amelie the Musical is delightfully bonkers, full of warmth and whimsy. Even if the sweltering summer heat, it was a delight to be whisked away to an idillic place where imagination and kindness win out.

    Amélie the Musical is at The Alexandra Birmingham from 22 – 27 July, when the UK tour concludes in October 2019 the musical will tour internationally. Tickets for the Birmingham show are available at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/amelie/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/

    This was a press event. Photos and copyright belong to Pamela Raith.

    Culture, Theatre

    Little Miss Sunshine at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

    LMS - Paul Keating, Evie Gibson, Lucy O'Byrne, Sev Keoshgerian,Gabriel Vick & Imelda Warren-Green (c) Richard H Smith

    When I think of movies which would translate easily onto film, Little Miss Sunshine isn’t one that immediately springs to mind. Yet five years after the movie made its way onto our screen, the musical adaptation hit a Californian stage before appearing as an off-Broadway show a couple of years later. What might not seem the most obvious screen-to-stage adaptation has clearly intrigued a lot of other people, and now Little Miss Sunshine the musical has landed here in Birmingham.

    My memory of the movie was a little hazy, but I remember a feel-good film that almost had me crying with laughter at the final dance scene. Primarily set around a dysfunctional family; overworked mother Sheryl who is fretting about her families finances whilst her husband Richard is a wannabe life coach and author.  Sheryl’s brother Frank has come to live with the family, having recently tried to commit suicide.  Sheryl’s oldest child Dwayne has taken a vow of silence and Richard and Sheryl’s daughter Olive is a wannabe beauty queen whose win at a regional heat is the reason the family embark on long-road trip in a beat-up a bright yellow VW van. In essence it’s a basic story based around characters resolving difficult times in their lives, whilst in a fairly contained environment, so it’ll be interesting to see how it fits on stage.

    LMS - Evie Gibson as Olive, Mark Moraghan as Grandpa (c) Richard H Smith

    I needn’t have worried.  The show fits on stage well and despite most of the story being set in a VW van the producers have choreographed a show which uses a lot more of the stage, giving it a presence which works, whilst still inviting the audience into the claustrophobic family environment.  The three tiered van and movable seats allow for much more action to take place, but I can’t help feel a smaller stage would’ve given the production the intimacy of the movie.

    Mark Moraghan plays the role of Grandpa Hoover.  He has an impressed back catalogue of acting roles, both on stage and screen, but most memorable to me (and probably showing my age) was when he played burly builder Greg Shadwick in Brookside.  Moraghan’s Grandpa Hoover is the same heroin-snorting, foul-mouthed sex-fiend as the movie, but on stage he steals almost every scene he’s in, even the more emotional moments with Olive Hoover (played on the night I saw it by Lily-Mae Denman).  Olive’s singing s a touch too nasal at first, in part I suspect due to the attempts at an American accent which several of the cast seem to fluctuate with.  But Lily-Mae Denman is a wonderful Olive, performing her with the right amount of child-like wisdom and eccentricity that make her loveable.

    Lily Mae Denman & Mean Girils (c) Manuel Harlan

    The play strikes the right amount of ridicule around the idea of kids beauty pageants, with Olive clearly the least likely to win as the other girls mimic the more grown up versions.  The idea of using the ‘mean girls’ who are used throughout the play to show the antithesis of quirky Olive works well, as does having them in identikit outfits like some sort of bullying girlband. Imelda Warren-Green is a wonderful character actress, playing the unhelpful hospital admin worker well, but the caricature of Miss California just felt a bit outdated.

    If you’re expecting a show which is full of the big bellowing songs which will be stuck in your ears for days you’ll be disappointed. This was never going to be a louder than life show, it just wouldn’t fit the story. Instead, Little Miss Sunshine is an eccentric and likeable show which shows just how theatrical ordinary family life can be. Think quirky indie film versus the summer blockbuster, but with a real dose of feel-good.

    Little Miss Sunshine is at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from Tuesday 16th to Saturday 20th July 2019. Tickets can be purchased from the Alex’s website.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Richard H Smith.

    Culture, Theatre

    Hair the Musical, Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

    HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director - Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting - Bem M Rogers, Choreographer - William Whelton, Designer - Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

    Sometimes you have to know when to admit defeat. After battling with a migraine since about 2am in the morning, and trying my best to do a day’s work, my colleague took pity on me / was sick of the sight of me (delete as appropriate) and told me to go home.  So instead of an evening catching up with a friend and going to see Hair the Musical at the Alexandra Theatre, I went home to bed.  Turns out this was probably a wise idea as the bright lights, big songs and colourful stage would probably not have done much for the monstrous headache I had.  Thankfully my friend Jo-ann was still able to go along, and she was kind enough to write up her thoughts.  So over to Jo-ann…

    So I agreed to attend Hair on a whim as I didn’t really know much about the show apart from the scandalous banning of it back in the day. I did some cursory research on the cast and saw it featured some X Factor contestants etc. I saw plenty of posters advertising this 50th anniversary touring show around town and was excited to see a modern take on the hippie generation.

    On taking my seat I was impressed by the set design and stage lighting. I certainly felt ready to go on a colourful trip back to the late 60s. The cast emerged onto the stage and the show began. From then to close it was a production full of song, colour inclusivity and hope.

    Hair

    Firstly we were introduced to Berger (Jake Quickenden) who charmed and enthralled the audience from the get go with his free-loving positive spirit. Through the various top tapping songs we meet other tribe members and learn about their entangled love lives and dilemmas.

    The ensemble cast whip their way through the songs with no off notes and dizzying dance routines. The set design adds to the counter culture vibe and successful ingrates the musicians into the production. It’s the songs that carry you through this show for sure.

    The cast interact with the audience throughout the show and this draws you into and at some points I feel like I’m under the influence. I thought I only knew one song but I was sorely mistaken as I found myself singing along to most of them, over the years they must have just seeped into my brain.

    The cast were all excellent but special shout outs to Woof (Bradley Judge), Jeanie (Alison Arnopp) and Dionne (Aiesha Pease) whose characters and voices really impressed.

    The underlying story is still relevant today particularly given Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests across the UK, but this is light hearted way to engage with some profound issues.

    The critically-acclaimed 50th anniversary production of Hair – The Musical is on at The Alexandra Theatre from Monday 29 April – Saturday 4 May 2019, with tickets available at atgtickets.com/birmingham

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Johan Persson.

    Culture, Theatre

    American Idiot the Musical at The Alexandra theatre

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_3106 copy

    Green Day never belonged to me, they were always my sister’s band. We were both pop-punk fans, but I never got Green Day in the way she did. I understood the impact of Dookie and started to warm up to them around the time of Warning, but American Idiot sealed it for me. It was strong, slick and full of stories. It was hardly surprising to me that it would be the album that would be a musical, especially given the whole “punk rock opera” moniker it was given, but I did wonder how it would play out.

    American Idiot the Musical kicks off with the titular song. It introduces the audience to a group of disaffected teenagers, fed up of the state of their country, mass media and the deal they’ve been dealt. During a series of songs from the album we learn that a trio of the group, Johnny, Will and Tunny are unhappy with their suburban lives, with Johnny’s revelation of a broken home and living in a world “that don’t believe in me” (Jesus of Suburbia). The trio plan to escape their lives, but on finding out his girlfriend is pregnant, Will stays at home, with Johnny and Tunny heading off to the city.

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_1905 copy

    Struggling to adjust to urban life, Tunny enlists in the army and Johnny turns to drugs. Injecting heroin for the first time, we are introduced to Johnny’s alter-ego, St Jimmy, which gives him a new-found courage to talk to the girl he’s had a crush on. Meanwhile, Tunny is deployed to a war zone, and Will is struggling to adjust to life at home without his friends and the impending birth of his child, both needing relief from their situations. But for Johnny, things seem to be going well, at least temporarily; in a drug-fuelled haze he gets the girl, beds her and things seem to be going well. That is until St Jimmy and the drugs take over, and surpass the love he has for his girlfriend.

     

    Back in the army, Tunny, now an amputee, is being tended to by a nurse, known as Extraordinary Girl, who he eventually falls in love with. Will’s girlfriend has their child, and grows increasingly impatient with his loser lifestyle of drugs and lazing on the sofa. Johnny is descending into an increasingly drug-addled state and threatens his girlfriend Whatshername followed by himself. She leaves him and realising what he’s lost he gets clean and tries to get a desk job before realising it’s not for him and heading for the bus back home. Will, sees his girlfriend with her new rock-star boyfriend but eventually she and Will call a truce and he embraces his child. Tunny introduces them to Extraordinary Girl and it takes a while for Johnny to forgive him for leaving him for the army, but finally, the trio are reunited.

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_2775American Idiot the Musical is a wonderful chaotic mess. The first fifteen minutes or so feel like an attempt to cram in as many of the higher octane songs as possible to set the scene; I liked the run through of songs but less so the toilet-humour antics, which just feel a bit like watching your parents try and pretend they know what teenagers are like. Thankfully the show seems to get it out of its system once the plot starts to appear. I mean sure, the plot is superficial but the split narrative about three young men who are all searching for meaning in their lives does work and particularly in the second half does have some touching moments.

    Waterloo Road’s Tom Milner as Johnny has the unenviable job of playing the link in the trio, dealing with the descent into drugs and the grittier side of Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals. It’s a hard thing to master and makes you realise just how skilled Green Day’s vocalist it, but Milner gives it heart. Perhaps the strongest performance of the night comes from local lad, West Brom’s own Joshua Dowen, who plays Tunny and delivers some of the most powerful vocal performances of the evening. Luke Friend, 2013’s X Factor third place runner-up, does a superb job playing the maniacal St Jimmy, the Fight Club style alter-ego who courts Johnny into the world of drugs and delusion.

    American Idiot Production_Mark Dawson Photography_DSC_3517 copy

    Whether it is intentional that both Green Day and American Idiot the Musical are a trio of men, it does feel like the female characters are there less as characters and more as motivations for the male leads. But somehow, despite all the issues, I found myself absorbed in the story. Even the ending, cliched as it was, with Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) reworked so that it was more musical, got me. And maybe that’s the best way to think of it: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right. I hope you had the time of your life.” And maybe American Idiot the Musical wasn’t the time of my life, but it left me feeling nostalgic and hopeful. And that’s not a bad way to leave a musical.

    American Idiot the Musical is on at the Alexandra Theatre from Tuesday 9 – Saturday 13 April 2019. Tickets are available via the Alex’s website.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Mark Dawson.

    Culture, Theatre

    Avenue Q at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

    Avenue Q (Dress)-010

    Wildly and inappropriately fun yet heartfelt, Avenue Q is a must see musical that will have you laughing and singing unsuitable songs well after you’ve left the theatre.

    The musical charts the stories of the inhabitants of Avenue Q, just as newly graduated Princeton moves in.  Quite rightly wondering “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” (I’m still trying to work that one out), Princeton is bright-eyed but a little lost, as he meets his neighbours; closet gay Republican Rod and his slacker roommate Nicky; porn enthusiast Trekkie Monster; therapist Christmas Eve and her fiancé Brian; singleton teaching assistant Kate Monster; and Gary Coleman…yes, that Gary Coleman.

    Avenue Q (Dress)-066

    Sounds like a pretty run-of-the-mill play until you realise some of the neighbours are human, some puppets and some, well, monsters.  Oh and of course there’s frequent visits from the bad decision bears, a duo who encourage some rather dubious actions.  Think a parody of Sesame Street, which goes rogue than last year’s disastrous movie flop The Happytime Murders (which was clearly going for an Avenue Q style, but fell far from the mark and felt more like a knock off from the market than anything else). 

    The puppeteers who play Princeton, Kate, Nicky, Trekkie, Rod and the Bad Idea Bears are visible right along side their puppet counterparts; rather than ruin the magic, being able to see the actor’s facial expressions just adds to the emotional weight of the story, particularly Cecily Redman’s Kate Monster and Tom Steedon’s Nicky.  It’s certainly worth watching the performances from the actor-puppeteers as much as it is the characters they’re performing with.

    Avenue Q (Dress)-211

    Sixteen years on from its first performance, the themes of Avenue Q feels just as fresh and relevant today as then – or at least since the first time I saw it a few years back.  Satire might be the life blood of Avenue Q, but the show has a lot of heart.  The musical tackles emotional subjects like racism, homosexuality and feeling a bit lost in the world with sincerity, whilst simultaneously making you laugh so much the muscles in your face hurt.

    The songs range from the hilarious through to the heartbreakingly emotional; “The More You Ruv Someone” is endearing and Saori Oda delivers a powerful performance, as does Cecily Redman’s Kate Monster in “There’s A Fine, Fine Line”.  There are also plenty of hilarious songs, including the earworm-friendly (and guaranteed to be stuck in your mind for days) “The Internet Is For Porn” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”, the latter of which includes an x-rated puppet scene – child friendly, this show is not. But by god it’s a lot of fun.

    Avenue Q (Dress)-098

    Avenue Q is at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from Tuesday 12 to Saturday 16 February 2019.  If you fancy an extra special Valentine’s Day, they’re doing an offer of two tickets for £40, plus a glass of Prosecco each (Bands A & B, 14 Feb only, must be booked in pairs), using the code: LOVEQ.  To book, visit the website https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/avenue-q/alexandra-theatre-birmingham/

    Culture, Theatre

    Fame The Musical at the Alexandra Theatre

    Proving that it does indeed live forever, Fame The Musical is back for a 30th anniversary tour.

    Based on the 1980’s phenomena, the story follows of a group of students at New York’s High School For The Performing Arts, Fame deals with a lot of contemporary issues including identity, pride, literacy, sexuality and substance abuse, which are just as relevant as they were back when the film first debuted. Opening in Manchester back in summer, the 30th Anniversary Tour of Fame The Musical proves to be just as popular now as it was then.

    Fame the Musical follows the stories of ten students who successfully audition and are accepted into New York’s High School For The Performing Arts, along with their dedicated teachers, Miss Bell, Mr Myers, Mr Sheinkopf and Miss Sherman, the latter played by soul singer Mica Paris.  Rather than a typical story following main characters, most of the ten students the film focuses on smaller storylines surrounding each of these.  Given the original story was a film, it’s sometimes difficult to translate the nuances from film to stage, but the play does an admirable job keeping the audience up with the emotional rollercoaster of these high school students determined to make it.

    Fame The Musical-Tour

    Iris Kelly, a talent ballet dancer who is confused for being wealthy and snobbish, until the truth is revealed.  Played by Jorgie Porter, best known for her work on Channel Four’s Hollyoaks, she’s able to put the skills learnt on Dancing with the Stars to good use as a ballet dancer, and the grace with which she and partner Tyrone (played by Jamal Kane Crawford) move together feels entirely believable.  That said, at some points early into the play there were a few off notes from some of the dancers during the ensemble pieces, possibly done to show the evolution of the performers as the move through the school years.

    Like all good shows, the warm up whilst not always an enjoyable as the performance is important, and the first act feels a little like this.  It’s where a lot of the set up of the storylines happens; the introduction of the characters, the hopes and dreams of the students are discovered and the reality of how hard they’ll have to work to achieve it is also make clear to them. At times the first act feels a little mechanical, despite the wonderful choreography, in terms of trying to set up the plot points of the characters and it’s not always easy to see the emotional growth of the characters. But fitting this much storytelling into one musical is tricky, and whilst the first act contains the set up, it means the stage is set for act two and the powerhouse of action.

    A scene from Fame The Musical TourThe second act feels far stronger than the first, packing in the emotional punches that have been set up by the first half of the show.  The resolution to the stories are revealed, some good and some sad, a few which will see a few audience members shed a few tears.  It’s also where the biggest applause of the evening so far is seen, during Miss Sherman’s solo, These Are My Children.  It’s here where Mica Paris’ voice is given a real chance to shine, the soul and emotion and big notes are heartfelt.  Compared to the earlier Teacher’s Argument, sung as a duet with Miss Bell (played by Katie Warsop), These Are My Children completely blew it out of the water.

    The set and lighting design work particularly well, especially around the transitions between scenes, where the use of lighting casting silhouettes or shadowing the stage enhances the atmosphere.  The wall of photographs, presenting the yearbook adds a nice backdrop, a reminder of the setting, both the era in which the story is set and the majority of the location in and around the high school.

    There are some elements which felt like they could’ve aged a little better – the confusion over the sexuality of Nick Piazza feels clunky, saved only by the sincerity and sensitivity with which Keith Jack plays the character.  The thin actress playing the overweight Mabel Washington who favours the ‘see food’ diet feels a bit over an oversight too.  That said, a lot of the stories from thirty years ago resonate just as strongly then as they do now – the drive to succeed, the issues around drug addiction, ‘insta-fame’ and living up to familial expectations.

    FB_Fame The Musical-Tour-Manchester-2183

    By the end of the show, everyone in the audience is up on their feet as the final song of the evening is, as you’d expect, the Oscar-winning titular song Fame, sung powerfully by Stephanie Rojas (who plays Carmen) and Mica Paris.  Despite a slow start, Fame delivers an energetic show and from the audience reaction, and sorry for the cliche, but it’s easy to see why it is set to live forever.

    Fame the Musical is at the Alexandra Theatre from 19 – 24 November 2018, with matinee showings on both Wednesday and Saturday. To book tickets, head to the Fame UK Tour website.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Tristram Kenton.