Review – On Your Feet ****

With that title this is a musical making a big promise. But with Gloria Estefan’s infectious rhythms delivered by a powerhouse on stage band it’s clear from the off that we’re heading in the right direction.

Even if all you know of Ms Estefan are the hits from her and Miami Sound Machine, you’ll find this juke box musical telling the story of her life treads often familiar ground. A musical child, she fights against the wishes of her family to pursue her dream. Record company bosses want to confine her to the Spanish speaking audience and fail to spot the hit potential of the recording they are hawking around. Then a few airplays later on local US radio stations and they have a hit. We’ve seen all this before and the staging, with a couple of small sets wheeled on either side of the stage to represent a kitchen, a hotel room, a dressing room, or whatever, is effective but functional.

But the show is lifted from the bland and predictable by a number of things. For starters, Ms Estefan’s story of an immigrant family coming to America hits topical notes in this Trump era that probably weren’t intended when the show was originally conceived (it ran in the US in 2015). Added to this there’s the re-telling of the serious tour bus crash which threatened not only her career but her life. Then there’s the ensemble. A riot of colourful costumes and energy, they bring the stage alive with precise and lively choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Christie Prades is brilliant as Gloria, commanding the stage having played the role on Broadway. Out shining her, for me, was Madalena Alberto as her mother. A flashback scene shows how she used to be a performer in her own right and Alberto was just superb. I really wanted more of her. Finally there’s the aforementioned band, who slide into and out of the action as required on a moving platform. Even if you’re not (or weren’t previously) into her music, hearing it live and lively makes it hard to resist.

The stage is framed by a rig of motorised lights which also play their part in bringing the whole venue alight. They play a useful role in the Coliseum which is a challenging venue for musical theatre, I find. It’s a cavernous and spectacular space even before the curtain rises. The room itself is always in danger of overwhelming the show playing in it. Any intimate and dramatic moments are hard to bring off, but the big musical numbers fare much better.

This colourful and high energy show seems designed for summer. It runs at the London Coliseum until 31 August, capturing the heat and light of a bright summer’s day, whatever our summer turns out to offer this year.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.


Review – Annie ****

Is there ever a time when there isn’t a production of Annie somewhere in the country? This particular version has been on the go for a few years, including a stint in the West End. Various stars have taken the leading role of Miss Hannigan but at the Orchard we were treated to Craig Revel Horwood, who is perhaps the most experienced in the part and commits to it fully.

Being such a well known show and with such a strong score, any production has to deliver something extra to stand out. I’m pleased to say this one does. From the start you’re greeted by an open stage with the dorm room of the children’s home ready and waiting in front of you. The set, strongly influenced by that of Matilda, is striking, with a jigsaw theme running all round, including the floor. Great lighting really brings it to life. Only one note of concern with the latter, and it was the follow spots. At the Orchard they’re positioned in the balcony very close to the stage and it seemed this close angle was giving them difficulty in following the actors without them occasionally slipping from the light or having a shadow cast across them.

The young cast of orphans are well drilled, powerful singers and excellent movers. They all delivered individual characters and impressively confident performances. I have to say, though, that the lyrics were not always clear. I can’t put my finger on exactly why but it seemed to me the sound balance between their young, high voices and the band didn’t work quite as well as it did for the adult ensemble. Speaking of whom, they were terrific. They sounded great and delivered crisp, tightly choreographed dance routines.

Annie at this performance was played by Ava Smith, making her professional debut. She was everything you could wish for in the role. The great thing about the part is that it’s written for a child and requires the actor to perform as one. I don’t like young performers, however talented, to sing adult songs about adult themes when they are required to generate emotions of which they can have no experience. In this part Ava was able to show her considerable singing power (she held some impressively long notes and phrases), combined with sure-footed dancing and a winning way with the dialogue. Her main co-star as Oliver Warbucks was Alex Bourne who was perfect for the part. A great presence and rich voice. I was also pleased to see his programme bio started with a reference to his part in Eugenius! – one of my recent favourites! Both of them narrowly avoided being out-shone by Amber the labradoodle in the key role of Sandy.

Richard Meek and Jenny Gayner are Miss Hannigan’s dodgy brother Rooster and his latest girlfriend, Lily St Regis. ‘I was named after the hotel,’ she says, giving Craig Revel Horwood the great comeback, ‘Which floor?’ The three of them get the stand-out number Easy Street, delivered with great panache.

And so to Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hanningan. Living up to his name he absolutely does revel in the excesses of the part. Her drink problem clearly threatens to overwhelm her. He chews through the dialogue with relish. He looks frightful in shades of orange, but at the same time you can see there was once a woman of a certain appeal there before the ravages of time, drink and orphans took their toll.

This is a glossy show with high production values. As well as the previously mentioned set and lighting there is an eight piece band which really fills out the score wonderfully. It’s a West End quality production through and through.