Broadway

School of Rock – Winter Garden Theatre

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The irony surely can’t be lost that an anti-establishment musical that talks of “Sticking it to the man” has been written by two of the most quintessentially  British establishment figures in modern popular culture.  Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes both sit on the benches of the House of Lords, somewhere that couldn’t be further removed from the guitar strings world of this screen to stage adaptation.

Lloyd Webber has of course got some history when it comes to rock. Delving into his back catalogue in the early years there is a definite rock influence to be heard so probably no real surprise. Fellows seems to be a more unusual fit, but this is a story that is primarily about children finding a voice and about a lost man finding an anchor in life which just so happens to be those same children, so perhaps that human story is universal and matters not your background.

Based on the Jack Black film of 2003 School of Rock is a pretty familiar premise. Dewey is a down and out waster, thrown out of his beloved band and crashing at a friends house where he has already more than outstayed his welcome. Masquerading as his best friend he blags his way into becoming a supply teacher at well to do Horace Green High School. With his initial distaste of the prim school kids soon subsiding he spies the opportunity to teach them all his beloved rock and to form a new band. With all kinds of messages in the there to read as you will about education, upbringing and even a bit of class this is a pretty simple tale but with a solid moral compass all the same.

Fellowes and Lloyd Webber, along with lyricist Glenn Slater try hard to avoid too much sentimentality and you can see they have tried to keep a rock edge, but this isn’t always successful. When the kids sing their song pleading to their parents “If only you would listen” it borders on the saccharin but does strike a bit of a chord at the same time. That however is mainly due to the uniformly outstanding performances of the children in this show.

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It is no understatement to say that these kids are quite simply outstanding. Each of them have created and portray  vivid and real characters of their own. With singing, dancing and acting all in the bag they are shining examples of just what standards children can achieve in this business. They are fearless, funny and supremely talented, and if, as Lloyd Webber’s announcement at the start of the show states, they really are playing their own instruments then Broadway has a remarkable pool of talent heading its way in the future.

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If this group of kids are remarkable then they also have the talents of leading man Alex  Brightman to thank for being the glue that brings them all together. Whilst Brightman may have done nothing particularly innovative with the role (it is all very Jack Black) he exudes so much energy that it energises the entire production. With what is otherwise a collection of pretty standard performances from the rest of the cast set upon pretty unremarkable designs by Anna Luizos this could easily have the hallmark of a very dreary night. Brightman saves the day with his bounding enthusiasm and his clear respect for the young cast that support him all the way.

Annoyingly you will leave the Winter Garden nodding your head to the strains of “Stick it to the man” for the rest of the night in your head but the memory that you will take away more than any other will be just how phenomenal those kids were.

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Something Rotten! – St James Theatre

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As we enter the year that marks 400 years since the death of Shakespeare it seems only fitting that one of the big hits on Broadway at the moment is a new comedy musical celebrating him as some kind of mega rock star. Clad in leather and with a swagger that makes all of the rooms inhabitants swoon it is Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s clever lyrics that say it best that “he could write a real bitchin’ play”!

This is one of those rare laugh out loud shows that only comes along once in a while. With genuinely witty lyrics and some absurdly catchy tunes there is tap dancing, show girls and lots of Broadway asides that make this a real riotous night. Laced with affectionate musical nods to a slew of big Broadway hits throughout this wickedly enjoyable nonsense there is very little not to like.

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The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell centres around the second rate and mildly jealous yet secretly admiring competition to Shakespeare in the form of Nick Bottom. Desperate to write the next big hit and match the stardom of Shakespeare, Nick along with his brother Nigel are seeking inspiration for the next success. Local Soothsayer Nostradamus takes a bleary peek into the future for Nick and sees the next big thing will be musicals. Never a truer word said in jest! So off we go on the whacky journey to create a musical in 16th century London, and its a hoot.

Brian d’Arcy James as Nick has the right measure of being hapless yet endearing, his dry delivery of the comedy matched only with his clear showmanship when it comes to the big song and dance numbers. His brother is less endearing in the form of John Cariani and his whiny voice as the drippy Nigel. Unfortunately the comedy here runs pretty thin and borders on the irritating rather than the funny.

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Christian Borle almost slides across the stage with sleaze in a comically bravura portrayal of the Bard. Clad in leather with groupies dangling off each arm he is the epitome of modern stardom made all the more ridiculous in the show’s mock Tudor setting. Comedy clout too from Brad Oscar as Nostradamus clearly enjoying every drunken moment of being on stage.

Support is faultless across the board with an energy and an affection from the entire company that is nearly as infectious as the Plague (that has an entire song devoted to it). This is a comic salute to the genius of Shakespeare as well as to the musical itself. Its a massive hit!

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Finding Neverland – Lunt Fontanne Theatre

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Its quite incredible how the story of Peter Pan continues to give writers inspiration for imaginative and adaptive new work based on its ageless tales of adventure and of never giving in to that awful state of growing up!

This story of Peter Pans writer JM Barrie and his interwoven life with the Llewlyn Davies family beautifully blurs the lines between fact and fiction and steps into fantasy and adventure as well with just enough shades of reality to make this a fascinating story. It seems only fitting that to tell the story of a man that was so entrenched in storytelling that his life be portrayed with such great adventure.

Starting life as a film back in 2004 this is a show that has had quite a journey to get to this point. Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein took the leap to producing theatre with a peculiar decision to start the shows musical life in Leicester of all places in 2012. The show made a timid start to its life with only a luke warm reception from audiences and critics alike. Weinstein’s famously fierce determination would not let him give up at the first fall however.

Jump forward three years and with a new song writing partnership on board of Take That’s Gary Barlow and Lyricist Eliot Kennedy the show has moved nearer to Weinstein’s homeland and set up camp on Broadway. Some brave and bold decisions, but they have paid off. Finding Neverland now has the pedigree and the stamina to make it and to hold its own amongst the big shots on the Great White Way and presumably in the West End in the not too distant future.

There are great liberties taken with the true story of how JM Barrie met the Llewlyn Davies children and more so how his relationship began and developed with their Mother Sylvia. It doesn’t really matter though as this show is more about the spirit of love and adventure, of family and nurture. Self belief is promoted in the most exhilarating of ways with the internal dialogue being brought to life by the most colourful characters ever written, and yes that includes Captain Hook!

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At the performance I attended the flighty Neverland vessel was crewed by a slew of understudies. That this took nothing away from the piece is testament to its great giving nature and its ensemble feel with energy and life being given to it from all quarters.

Kevin Kern as Barrie manages to portray the relationship he has with the children purely as a naïve and playful one. Rumours of darker intentions that have often been spoken about long after his death are thankfully far from view here. Kern sings well and is genuinely moving as he poignantly says goodbye to the woman he was never seemingly quite able to fall in love with properly.

As Sylvia it is another Brit that works her magic in the form of the always impressive Laura Michelle Kelly. Kelly plays Sylvia as a woman of great strength and fortitude despite the obstacles that have been thrown at her in life. The ultimate obstacle that sees her life end is played with really tenderness and finishes with one of the most beautifully and movingly staged scenes I have ever seen.

Paul Slade Smith is dazzling as Captain Hook, the subconscious voice that pushes Barrie to dare and to leap.  Smith avoids the temptation of caricature and remains playful with just a hint of intimidation just hiding around the corner. Nicely observed performances are given by all of the youngsters too, particularly Eli Tokash as Peter who has some sturdy scenes to get through and does so with great feeling and believability.

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Scenically this is a show that never stops giving. It is often beautiful in its simplicity. Scott Pask’s designs and Jon Driscoll’s projection work have allowed the rest of the creative team to create a stunning world for Barrie’s adventure to take place. The crescendo of act one as rigging springs from the front of the stalls and smoke billows in to create the waves as he sets sail on his next great journey are breathtaking and wonderful to behold. Paul Kieve’s illusions bring just enough magic to the party to make it clever and even more charming rather than gimmickey.

Barlow’s music  has moments that really stir the soul and with some slick direction by the ever imaginative Diane Paulus this is a show that will simply leave you smiling from ear to ear, with perhaps a little tear in your eye at the same time.

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The Color Purple – Bernard B Jacobs Theatre

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The greatest thrill of John Doyle’s Broadway revival of Alice Walkers hard hitting story of self resilience and humanity is witnessing the stratospheric rise to stardom of our very own pint sized powerhouse that is Cynthia Erivo. For it is Erivo’s night as she holds the audience and indeed the whole of Broadway in the palm of her hand in a truly magnificent performance of assured strength and gentle beauty.

Doyle’s directorial strengths lie in intimacy and the challenge has no doubt been great to move his Color Purple from London’s tiny Menier Chocolate Factory to the glitzy world of Broadway and the comparatively vast Bernard B Jacobs theatre. He has managed the transition brilliantly however and has walked the fine line of up sizing whilst maintaining its intimate and heart warming feel with great skill. Where it has fallen slightly is that some of the grit has been lost and perhaps a little too much Broadway gloss has been used to make this appeal to the masses. We don’t always get the opportunity to truly feel the journey that has been made by some of the characters.

The story of Celie and the abusive life that she endures is not a happy one. Her self-sacrifice to protect her sister by enduring rape and beatings first from her step father and then from the monster that she marries give her a steely determination to escape. It is in the unlikely form of flamboyant lounge singer Shug Avery that helps Celie begin to believe in herself and to fight back. With tough talking daughter-in-law Sofia leading a blazing trail of independence at her side she not only escapes the clutches of her tormentors but makes a success of her own life. The children that were taken away from her at birth following rape at the hand of her step-Father are then also reunited with the help of the sister that she fought so fiercely to protect and whom she thought to be dead.

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There is a surprising amount of light to an otherwise pretty bleak story however. The sepia tones of the production give way to the warm colours of Africa during a particularly beautiful scene that follows Celie’s sister Nettie where she is now a missionary in a simple but touching performance by Joaquina Kalukango. The irresistible asides and comedic looks of the three Church Ladies are exquisitely timed by Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson and Rema Webb.

Then of course the biggest splash of colour comes with the arrival of Jennifer Hudson’s Shug Avery. Making her Broadway debut there have been some pretty big expectations on Hudson and she doesn’t let us down. Although there are times that she doesn’t always look completely at home on stage she powers through her numbers with that lightening bolt electric voice of hers. Dannielle Brooks’ no nonsense Sofia is like an unstoppable force of nature with a larger than life voice that matches her larger than life stage presence. Following a particularly brutal beating it is all the more hard hitting to see her brought to her knees and induced into silence.

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But it is Erivo’s night. She is one of those rare performers that truly inhabits a role and invests every ounce of her being into her performance. There is a blissfully calm and grounded nature to her performance that reveals genuine vulnerability with an internal strength and will. Her voice is nothing short of sublime and when she belts out her show stopping number ‘I’m Here’ you can do nothing but watch in astonishment. Most astonishing of all is how she goes from belter to miniscule subtlety in a split second as she utters those self revelatory words almost to herself “I’m beautiful”. A life time of being told she is ugly and worthless has finally come to an end and it is quite beautiful to witness.

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Newsies The Musical – Nederlander Theatre

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It was a bold choice to put Newsies on the stage. Based on the 1992 film that virtually no one has heard of it is not the stuff that immediately springs to mind when you think of a Broadway show. That being said it is a story that resonates with New York and with New Yorkers in a very big way, add in a dazzling mix of high octane dance from a troupe of good looking young hopefuls then perhaps its a great choice.

Its got a gold plated Broadway pedigree with Alan Menken and Jack Feldman writing music and lyrics and the mighty Harvey Fierstein in control of the book. With Disney producing you would imagine that it has hit written all over it. Well it’s certainly been a stonking success during it’s relatively short tenure at the Nederlander, but can it sustain I wonder?

Following the real life strikes of 1899 by the newspaper boys of New York it centralises on fictional character Jack Kelly who leads the boys to fight for their rights during the cost cutting efficiencies of news tycoon Joseph Pulitzer. Its a fairly familiar tale of revolutionary leading his troops to success, via a route of misery and self doubt, with a little bit of love interest thrown into the mix for good measure.

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Menken’s music is catchy enough and there are some great moments in Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, but there seems to be little else in the way of any great substance. The drab designs by Tobin Ost do nothing to evoke any great sense of New York with all of the cast dressed equally as drably as the grey and austere framework on the stage.

Corey Cott gives a spirited and energetic performance as Jack Kelly with nice support from Andy Richardson as Crutchie along with the rest of the Newsies. Love interest Katherine is played by Kara Lindsay perfectly nicely with a slightly more colourful performance from the belting LaVon Fisher-Wilson as show girl Medda Larkin.

The real Newsies would have known terrible suffering and hardship, a sense that you just don’t get in this highly glossed song and dance show. It’s enjoyable but teaches us nothing and thus misses a great opportunity to tell the younger generation of the hardships others suffered for our benefit.

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Kinky Boots – Al Hirschfeld Theatre

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The glittering lights of the Great White Way couldn’t be further removed from the grime of Northampton and the ailing shoe factory in which Kinky Boots is set. Yet it is here that the stage adaptation of the 2005 British film has begun its life with a very American creative force behind it. Written by the great Harvey Fierstein with music by the eccentric Cyndi Lauper and directed by Broadway hoofer Jerry Mitchell it is about as American as it can get!

Full of toe curlingly bad ‘Britishness’ as only the Americans can do there is no escaping the sheer joyousness of this relentlessly good natured musical though. The accents are shocking and the stereotypes are endless, but the riotous fun and the sheer feel good factor is enough to make you smile from start to finish.

Having inherited his Dads aging shoe factory Charlie Price needs to find a way of saving the business before it folds. A fortunate encounter with Drag Queen Lola sparks the idea of setting his workforce to creating a range of Kinky Boots for the transvestites of the world. With an obligatory love triangle complicating matters and a group of locals for whom the 21st Century has passed them by there is much to enjoy about the clichéd story.

Stark Sands plays straight laced Charlie and bounces off Billy Porters brilliantly camp Lola with an infectious exuberance. Both men manage the comedy brilliantly whilst never being far away from the poignancy that gives this show its beating heart. Porter in particular exudes energy and is a delight as he hits the right mark by being outrageous rather than irritating and shows the courageous streak that defines the character.

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Support is equally strong throughout with a particularly sparky and comic performance from Annaleigh Ashford as Charlie’s love interest Lauren, Marcus Neville as the unflappable and surprisingly open minded George and Daniel Stewart Sherman as reformed character Don.

Mitchell’s choreography sizzles, none more so than in the remarkable factory scene where everyone is dancing on conveyor belts. The spectacular finale rockets into the stratosphere helped by some wickedly imaginative (and ponderously stereotyped) costumes by Gregg Barnes.

If and when this hits the West End stage I think we could well be in for something very special indeed.

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Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark – Foxwoods Theatre

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With more drama offstage than on throughout the development of this staggering musical it is a wonder that it ever made it onto a stage and in front of a paying audience. The calamities and infighting are now the stuff of legend and was surely the perfect storm that could have created the biggest and costliest white elephant on the Great White Way. Somehow that was not to be and Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark has survived to tell the tale and to wow audiences on an unimaginable level.

With a thumpingly good but very U2 sounding rock score by Bono and The Edge and credits for a design team that includes those for scenic, projection, lighting, sound, aerial, mask, prosthetics, costume, hair (the list is endless) this was always going to be a difficult and unyielding project to grapple with. Julie Taymor has got form with big musicals of course but even she wasn’t quite able to manage it. With rewrites, delays and injuries plaguing production she ended up leaving the show before it had even officially opened. She now shares directing credits with Philip Wm. McKinley who was subsequently drafted in to take on the beast.

The book by Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa along with Taymor is basic and slightly nausea inducing, but then this is based on a comic so perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much! It is in the spectacle that Spider-Man awe inspiringly hooks you. The massive Foxwoods stage plays host to the outrageous and uninhibited comic book designs that are monumentally impressive and on an unabashed scale.

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The gravity defying look of the show is nothing though compared to the outlandish and breath taking flying sequences that play out before your eyes and over your heads. The high wire stunts are nothing short of mesmerising and completely enthral. Bouncing from the stage and swinging through the air hopping from one balcony to another this is spectacle of the highest degree. As Spidey battles the Green Goblin high above our heads the wonder is that this doesn’t all end up a knotted mess of wires ending in disaster, but it doesn’t and instead you sit in wonder and take it all in with awe.

The entire company work hard and look proud as punch to be there. Reeve Carney captures the Spider-Man spirit perfectly with his mix of geekiness, humour and daring antics as Spidey, whilst Rebecca Falkenberry plays love interest Mary Jane with an ease and innocence about her that calms things down just enough. Robert Cuccioli is suitably over the top as the Green Goblin and milks the part for all its worth.

It’s not high drama and there is no searing emotion. It has the subtlety of a comic strip and the ballsiness of a circus piece and because of that it sure is one hell of a show!

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The Nance – Lyceum Theatre

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In the seedy Burlesque world of thirties America a Nance was all part of the risqué entertainment on offer. Peculiar to think that in a world where homosexuality was so feared and loathed there was such a strong fascination with it that people would pay good money to watch a straight man camping it up and playing a gay man for comedic value. The Nance would be a regular and important part of any self-disrespecting Burlesque show, purely there for comedy but what is not quite clear now as we look back is was it mocking gays or was it secretly celebrating them?

Nathan Lane is the fictional Nance of Chauncey Miles for this new play by Douglas Carter Beane. The slightly over egged twist is that Chauncey really is gay and not merely camping it up for entertainment. The mockery becomes self-mockery which soon leads to self-loathing along with all those other internal self hate-isms.

During an illicit encounter in which Chauncey tries to pick up a younger man in a renowned gay pick up spot he finds himself falling for his prey and moving him into his apartment in what seems like no time at all. There then follows cliché after frustrated and repressed cliché of keeping their love affair secret and denying its very existence to those that may hold influence.

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Jack O’Brien’s direction is clumsy and lacks subtlety whilst the words of Beane are predictable and frustratingly drab. The cast all work hard and have the use of a beautifully planned set by John Lee Beatty that moves effortlessly between on and off stage at the burlesque club as well as the wonderfully detailed apartment space of Chauncey and his new roommate.

With the burlesque scenes interwoven into the offstage drama there is an interesting juxtaposition of the comedy and the heartache. Lane clearly is in his element as the Nance with his outrageously stereotypical campness all high pitched squeals and flapping arms. The humour is ridiculous but fun and gives the much needed light to the shade into which he steps once offstage. Here Lane lacks the poignancy that is needed. We never truly feel his anguish or his pain, although we come close at times.

Support is adequate all round but never really reaches much more than that. Jonny Orsini shows little personality as love interest Ned whilst Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns and Cady Huffman are strangely sexless as the less than titillating burlesque girls.

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Pippin – Music Box Theatre

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There is a strangely bleak message behind this oddly uplifting musical. As Pippin searches for his purpose and meaning in life he wants to believe that he is extraordinary, don’t we all? The end result of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical is that we are sent away under no illusion that actually the best any of us can ever hope for is to be utterly ordinary.

The journey that Pippin takes from Prince to warrior and ending in only marriage, Fatherhood and domesticity is a metaphorically familiar one. He soon realises that there is of course no glory in war and that the pressure of life under the spotlight is not all it’s cracked up to be. The extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary, isn’t it?

Set within the world of all things circus this new production by Diane Paulus is a complete treat to behold. Breathtaking and awe inspiring from one scene to the next it is a visual feast from start to finish. With some superb Bob Fosse inspired choreography by Chet Walker as well there is plenty of spectacle to assault the senses.

Petina Miller leads the company as the peculiarly androgynous narrator known simply as the Leading Player. As anyone that saw her spirited performance in Sister Act will know Miller is a high voltage performer and fills the stage with a presence and vitality that blasts onto the stage like a human cannonball. In a portrayal that switches from casual observer to sinister manipulator she is part ring master and part conscience. In a role that is filled with such ambiguity she inhabits it with a clarity and definition that sizzles all the way.

As Pippin, Matthew James Thomas plays the right mix of uncertainty and cocksureness of adolescence whilst always keeping an appeal and likability about him. His voice sores at times particularly with the beautiful Corner of the Sky.

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Strong support from Terrance Mann as Pippins Father Charles adds comedy with a dark underbelly to proceedings with sultry sassiness being provided by leggy step mum Fastrada played by Charlotte d’Amboise. Rachel Bay Jones is love interest and bride to be Catherine. Soppy and lovelorn but startlingly plain and homely the message is another tip that the best we can hope for is ordinary.

Broadway and comedy legend Andrea Martin may only be a petite lady but she sure knows how to own a stage. As Berthe, Grand Mother to Pippin she moves around the stage with a grace and vigour that defies her years. The control exerted in her aerial work (yes aerial work!) for a woman of 67 is both remarkable and beautiful.

Despite its updated orchestrations and tweaks there is a definite datedness to Schwartz’s score although it is never less than toe tappingly good. With the circus work on display by Gypsy Snider set upon the stunning big top set designed by Scott Pask this is a visual delight and an enjoyable tale, even if it does leave you with more questions than answers, but then that’s life all over.

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