Review – Waitress ****

Waitress is a musical with two competing styles. The central character has a serious plot line concerning an abusive husband, an illicit affair, an unplanned pregnancy and unfulfilled ambitions. Not all things easily made light of, despite the promise of sweet fun implied by the setting being a pie-based diner offering all manner of, mainly sweet, delights. On the other hand, everyone else is out to make the most of every comic opportunity, be it in dialogue or physical comedy.

Somehow, though, this overall odd mix comes out right – like the blueberry and bacon pie which is one of the daily specials.

The story centres on Jenna (Sarah O’Connor, making her debut in the role as understudy), seeking a way out of her marriage and dead-end job as waitress and chief pie maker in Joe’s Pie Diner. O’Connor is convincing in her pain and frustration and a powerful singer, although I would have liked her to moderate her southern drawl to improve clarity of the lyrics. Her two waitress partners in crime are Becky (Marisha Wallace), who is all big, brash and full of attitude, and Dawn (Laura Baldwin) – nerdy, timid, slightly weird. These somewhat one dimensional sidekicks are nonetheless efficiently drawn and expertly played. Marisha Wallace knows just how to time a line. Laura Baldwin, reliably excellent as ever, has a riot with her part. This is only compounded by the arrival of her would-be sweetheart in the shape of the completely camp and over-the-top Jack McBrayer as Ogie. Between them they just about stop the show.

Jenna’s world is turned upside down by her pregnancy and, with it, the arrival of her hot doctor, Dr Pomatter. It turns out he is, frankly, a bit of a cad, but this is glossed over and we forgive him, largely thanks to David Hunter’s winning and humorous portrayal. Her husband, Earl, meanwhile, is brutish but we see him struggling to find a way to cope with his wife’s dreams and so Peter Hannah in the part avoids becoming a pantomime villain.

The music is in the folk-rock idiom with useful variety in the songs. This gives it a fresh and original sound – not your typical Broadway musical style at all. Combined with an outstanding backdrop and efficient set this all contributes to the homely, slightly remote feeling of a diner in the American south, untouched by 21st century values but warmed by home cooking and homely values. Ultimately it won me over completely!


Review – Hair *****

Hair is a musical designed to court controversy. Its famous nudity (which features only briefly) was only possible when the show originally played in London because of the removal of theatre censorship the day before opening night in 1968.

It tells the story of a tribe of hippies in New York who try to live a life of freedom and self expression. The backdrop is the Vietnam war and the looming threat of the draft. The apparent leader of the tribe, Berger (Jake Quickenden) sets the scene. Various characters then introduce both themselves and the tribe’s attitudes to sex, war, race, drugs – everything you shouldn’t discuss at a polite dinner party – in some of the numerous songs. Gradually a sort of narrative appears in which Claude (Paul Wilkins) has received his draft card to go to Vietnam. The tribe urge him to burn it but ultimately he feels duty-bound to accept his fate.

The show still has the power to shock and it’s important for the power of the piece that it does. Being drafted into the Vietnam war is not a real and live possibility as it was for audiences in 1968. To achieve that same effect 50 years later this production opens with what is to modern eyes the most daring thing you can do on stage – smoking! The entire cast line-up downstage and simultaneously light their cigarettes (or perhaps more likely spliffs). Shortly afterwards Berger is down to a G string and running into the audience. Having unsettled us we now know we are in the company not of a bunch of hippie throw-backs but daring, care free and individual people who know their own minds and bodies.

For all this, the music is where it’s really at. It’s packed with songs. Many you’ll know – The Age of Aquarius, I Got Life, Let the Sun Shine, Good Morning Starshine. The cast sound great individually and simply stunning together. The band is on stage, dotted about in various places and apparently playing without sheet music – heightening the sense of this being a spontaneous happening. And they are also terrific.

The colourful set is both atmospheric and effective, with brilliant lighting transforming the mood from song to song. This was my first ever experience of Hair and I was completely blown away by the music and the energy. It could so easily have been a period piece, but this feels modern, daring and relevant even 50 years on.

Hair is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 18 May 2019.

Review – Tina, the Tina Turner musical ****

I have a general awareness of some of the more iconic Tina Turner songs. But I’m not really into her music to the extent I could name more than a handful at best. As for her back story – not a clue! That said, the pairing of ‘Ike and Tina Turner’ has a pleasing and memorable ring to it, even though, as it transpires, she would rather forget the Ike bit!

Tina – the Tina Turner Musical recently celebrated its first year in London with a cast change. Taking the lead is Nkeki Obi-Melekwe in her West End Debut after graduating in 2018 from Michigan University. She is remarkable. A hugely powerful performance, as physically energetic as it is vocally, she takes on a massive role and carries it off magnificently. As Ike Turner Ashley Zhangazha tackles a part which could easily become the pantomime villain but shows him as talented, passionate, flawed and weak. We pity him but we don’t hate him.

The show opens with the nine year old Tina (Athea Andi was just great, by the way), then simply Anna Mae Bullock, singing her heart out at church before witnessing the brutal treatment her preacher father delivers on his family when away from the congregation’s gaze. This scene is richly evocative and a most unusual and serious opening for a musical. It’s more like a play. This sombre tone pervades most of the show. Hers is a tough story and her career not an easy one.

But as the show progresses it reverts more to type, that type being the standard juke box musical. The pattern of a scene in a dressing room or hotel room followed by a song, followed by another scene, becomes a little worn across the evening. Clever use is made of the songs, though. Some are incorporated into the story and used as they would be in a conventional musical to develop plot and character. Others are treated as straightforward performance opportunities at a concert or in a recording studio. My only slight disappointment with the song selection was the omission of her Bond theme for Goldeneye – but I can see why it wouldn’t fit the show, even if they could have got the rights for it!

The show looks just great. There’s a slick, moving set, stunning video projection and the lighting is just spectacular. Crisp, subtle and atmospheric it sustains and improves not just the musical numbers but the dramatic scenes as well.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Tina – the Tina Turner musical is at the Aldwych theatre, London.

Review – Man of La Mancha ****

Man of La Mancha hasn’t been produced in London’s West End since 1968. I must confess that, ahead of seeing this new production staring Kelsey Grammer, I was worried I was going to find out why!

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote and writer Dale Wasserman’s own television play of the novel, the musical version frames the stories of Don Quixote (the man of La Mancha in the title) by having us first encounter the author Cervantes (Kelsey Gammer) and his servant (Peter Polycarpou) as they are thrown into prison in what is apparently a totalitarian state where the inmates only ever leave to face execution. Cervantes finds himself on trial by the other inmates with all his possessions at stake if they find him guilty. He decides to plead his case by putting on a play, casting himself as elderly author Alonso Quijano who has written much on chivalry. So much, in fact, that he loses his grip on reality, believing himself to be a chivalrous knight called Don Quixote.

So within five minutes of the opening we’ve got Kelsey Grammer playing Cervantes playing Alonso Quijano playing Don Quixote! But I think my description makes it seem harder to follow than it is. In fact the whole edifice hangs together rather well and we move easily from the prison to the play within a play which is where (and when – Cervantes ‘play’ is set in the sixteenth century even though his prison is decidedly futuristic – do keep up)  most of the action takes place.

The framing device does two things. It allows Cervantes to comment on Don Quixote’s and Quijano’s journeys. And because the frame is set in the near future it also provides a degree of currency to the discussion on truth, facts and fantasy which are at the core of the story.

In Cervantes’ play within a play his Don Quixote sees things as he wants them to be, not as they are. So a windmill is a giant with whirling arms, an inn is a castle and a prostitute is Dulcinea, the love of his life. In playing this multi-layered role Kelsey Grammer has a huge task. On top of playing the three interlinked characters he also has to shake off images of Frasier and muster enough singing chops to be convincing in the vastness of the Coliseum. In terms character delineation and stage presence he’s a great success. With Frasier appearing daily on Channel 4 comparisons are inevitable. But only those Frasier tropes which fit the part of allowed in. So Don Quixote’s delusions of grandeur are a good fit, as is his use of floral language (on more than one occasion things are described as a ‘boon’ –  a favourite Frasier descriptor). As for the singing this is always at least fine throughout and often very good indeed – notably in the stand-out ‘Impossible Dream’.

Co-starring we have Danielle de Niece who is a captivating presence as the prostitute at the inn Aldonza (but who Don Quixote sees as Dulcinea). Nicholas Lyndhurst works hard as both the hard faced prisoner running Cervantes impromptu ‘trial’ and the dipsomaniac innkeeper at Don Quixote’s ‘castle’. He is a delight in the scene where he has to knight Don Quixote. Peter Polycarpou is Cervantes’ servant and Sancho Panza – keeping both of them grounded in simple adoration of the man, which provides him with the funny and touching solo ‘I really like him’.

The show overall has an epic feel to it. The set is huge as is the sweep of the story. But its unique qualities may also be what has seen it resisted in London for so long. The distance between the futuristic prison and the 16th century story can be alienating at times. The play within a play device is perhaps over stretched. And the story takes a dark turn in Act 2. Having Aldonza brutally attacked is one thing, but setting it as a dance number sits uneasily. It stays sombre, if ultimately uplifting, to the end – reminiscent in tone of Carousel.

This was, for me, a revelation. A musical unlike any other I’ve seen and which exceeded my expectations across the board. And, of course, we’ve got to keep Kelsey Grammer coming back to London (this is his second visit, having been brilliant in Big Fish at the end of 2017). More please!

Man of La Mancha is at the London Coliseum until 8 June 2019.

She in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office