Tuesday, 25 February 2014

"Happy Days", Glasgow King's Theatre, 24/2/14

Another review written for Backstage Pass:


     I'll admit that I never really watched the television show "Happy Days" so this musical version was almost something wholly new to me. Indeed, I think that the stage show should work on its own merits, without the need for comparison with its source material. One television show I did watch was Channel Four's "The Sound of Musicals" where producer Amy Anzel became something of a minor celebrity as viewers watched her valiant efforts to produce this musical version of "Happy Days". We saw how tenacious and determined she was to get the show mounted and her passion for the project was such that she showed up onstage in person to introduce the Scottish premiere.  But was all her hard work worth it? Well, for the most part, yes:
"Happy Days" is not a perfect show. The plot centres around the efforts to save local diner "Arnold's" from demolition. Throw in a love story and we're off and away. Creator of the television series, Garry Marshall, has written a script that is perky and fun and which certainly appears to have captured the spirit of the television show. 
An energetic opening number called "Welcome To Wisconsin" sets the tone but Act I loses momentum and is somewhat slack in its middle where it feels that it is left to Williams' songs and the cast to pick up the energy. It picks up towards the end of the act but one is left feeling that the script needs work in places. Act II, however, is a total gear change and full throttle is finally achieved from the get-go: It becomes supremely energetic, lively and much funnier. The pace is vastly improved and it speeds along perfectly.
Throughout the script there are clear references to the original television show and also ironic references to the 1950s and 60s. This is a script written by a writer whose tongue is often firmly within his cheek. The "Fonzie"/"Pinky" love story is a little unsatisfying, however, and is somewhat glossed over.
Paul Williams' music and lyrics are near perfect for the production, fitting the various scenes effortlessly whilst capturing the feel, style and energy of the 1950s, no doubt aided in part by John McDaniel's musical arrangements and the musical direction of Greg Arrowsmith who leads an excellent band. "Pink's In Town", "The Famous Bronze", "What I Dreamed Last Night" and "Dancing On The Moon" are particular standouts. The integration of the TV show's famous title song is also well handled and never feels unnatural when it appears.
     Andrew Wright's choreography is a little underwhelming in places, lacking energy especially in the Act I lull, but picks up in the second act where everything seems to come together. His direction is also a little too safe at times for my liking and there are some staging issues which need to be addressed to make them more visible to some of the audience. Some of his transitions between scenes should be looked at and he needs to deal with the sagging within Act I. It's to his credit, however, that Act II is far superior and brings the show up to a whole new level, bringing the audience with it. It's a zippier and cleaner affair than Act I.
     The design by Tom Rogers is also a little hit and miss: Whilst his costumes are spot on his set, which is based on a unit set of "Arnold's Diner" that has folding walls to become other sets (such as the "Cunningham's House"), can sometimes become clunky during transitions. The design also seems to limit some of the action that takes place on it - no more is that present than when we visit the "Cunningham's Back Yard" and the exterior of "Fonzie's" residence; the action takes place extreme Stage Left which must surely inhibit some audience sight lines. Other times, however, Rogers' set exudes the perfect sense of nostalgic reverence and "picture perfect" images - especially when it folds in on itself to become "Franklin Park". There are also some issues with the set that need to be addressed as it often threatened to outshine the cast in its performance with doors that kept opening of themselves, whilst the efforts by cast and stage crew to close them elicited some of the strongest laughs of the evening.
Philip Gladwell's lighting compliments the set for the most part but could be even more exciting in places. There were also some issues with the sound at the beginning of the evening where some lyrics were somewhat inaudible but this was rectified as Act I progressed.
     The true stars, aside from Williams' songs, are the cast. Anzel and her creative team have assembled an energetic and joyous ensemble that anchor the production with Ben Freeman leading the way. He seems quite at home as "The Fonz" bringing an easy presence and strong vocal to the role whilst Heidi Range as "Pinky Tuscadero" brings a cool sassiness to the role, not to mention a sultry voice that is a welcome contrast to the other female voices in the cast. James Paterson as "Mr Cunningham" and Cheryl Baker as "Mrs Cunningham" are perfectly cast and "Bucks Fizz" fans will not be disappointed in the latter's performance! Emma Harrold as "Joanie Cunningham" and Scott Waugh as her brother, and quasi-narrator, "Richie Cunningham" are also strong. But it is Andrew Waldron as "Ralph Malph" who threatens to steal the show with what is, probably, the funniest performance of the cast. The remaining members of the company are all well chosen and every single person onstage appears to be having a good time - even whilst fighting the misbehaving set.
    Amy Anzel has stated that she hopes to take this production into London's West End and her dogged nature makes you want it to happen for her, she appears so likeable. But there are certainly issues to be addressed within the current production, issues that an unforgiving West End audience will not tolerate. That said, I have no doubt that miss Anzel and her team will continue to work at the production and, who knows, she may defy the odds and succeed in her goal. After all, as she opines in her opening speech, there are far too few new musicals opening these days, and this is, ultimately, an enjoyable one.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

"Eat, Pray, Laugh! Barry Humphries' Farewell Tour", Glasgow King's Theatre, 11/2/14

I've written a review for http://www.backstagepass.biz/ so thought I'd drop a link to it here on my blog:

     With a showbiz career spanning more than half a century which includes being in the original company of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" and featuring in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", Barry Humphries returns to Glasgow' King's Theatre for the first time since 1987 with his "Eat, Pray, Laugh" Farewell Tour which concentrates on the creations of Humphries himself, appropriately a celebration of the talent that Humphries clearly still possesses.
Initially we are faced with Brian Thomson's charmingly simple, backyard set featuring a tool shed and an outdoor 'dunny' (toilet to us Brits) appearing harmless enough, together with an onstage piano, adorned in an elegant grass covering, matching its clipped hedge surroundings.
The comedy begins in earnest when Les Patterson arrives with his backing troupe, the "Condiments", and recounts snippets of his life for us replete with asides, innuendos and a terrific interaction with the audience (complete with spittle - beware if you're sitting in the front row of the stalls!). Les is, of course, infamously crude, somewhat vulgar and certainly not PC. He is a cleverly created caricature of a sexist, racist, self-serving politician. And the audience love it, even his singular use of the 'dunny'. We are also treated to some song and dance throughout as Les reveals the next stage of his career beyond politics; "Les Get Cookin'" in which we are 'treated' to Les' culinary skills.
It is Les who here provides the first opportunity - and there are several throughout the evening -  for audience interaction, a tricky theatrical tool, but here used to excellent effect with Humphries proving his ability to improvise and deal with the unexpected. Humphries even uses this audience participation as part of a segue into his next, less familiar, character, Gerard.
Introducing a less familiar character is always interesting and permits a fresh element to the evening's proceedings and allows Humphries to play some more with the audience and their expectations. Indeed, towards the end of the first act the tone changes dramatically as we are faced with an unexpectedly poignant character, Sandy Stone, who, sitting alone in spotlight, talks about issues that come to many later in life and even beyond it. This, of course, only serves to make the humour which ultimately arrives all the more important and uplifting although the contrasting changes of tone and pace come as a surprise to some.
The second act opens with an eastern influenced flavour in design and is devoted to that Grande Dame of Showbiz, Dame Edna Everage herself, who, naturally, received a rapturous applause following a humorous look back on the scandals of her life in the style of a schlocky Showbiz  promo entitled "Dame Edna Revealed". This set up enabled Dame Edna to enter into her frank conversation about the reasons for her retirement with an audience who are more than eager to listen.
Humphries is clearly most at home in the guise of the World's most famous housewife and Dame Edna really does shine, be it in her quick asides, her barbs, clever one-liners, sharp tongue (which is mostly directed at particular audience members and their appearance or social standing), or her witty 'honesty'. We are privy to personal insights into the life of Dame Edna and of her family, not to mention her medical history. Indeed, Dame Edna's favourite subject is the primary topic and that subject is, of course, herself, as Dame Edna is eager to remind us.
However, Dame Edna is all heart and she endeavours to bring romance to a lucky pair from the audience in a final piece of onstage audience participation that shows what a master Humphries is at his art, before culminating in a song and dance fit for the Dame.
It is in this second act that everyone, onstage and off, is having the most fun and appears most at ease.

Simon Phillips' direction of the witty, outrageous and downright funny material is crisp and sharp, even if the sudden shift in act one comes somewhat abruptly. The ensemble cast are clearly having fun whilst Nick Len, who provides the musical accompaniment at piano throughout, almost never leaves the stage.
But, of course, the evening naturally belongs to Humphries himself who naturally shines in whatever role he is embodying. It is a testament to his prowess as an actor and performer that he is so deftly able to transform, and convince, from one character to the next. Humphries is also a generous performer in that it never seems a selfish show, despite the characters involved, but rather a production that revels in, and is appreciative of, the existence of its audience.
Whilst the humour may sometimes be on the cusp, Humphries' delivery is so knowing and given with such verve and appeal that it is never seen as an attack, even upon the poor souls who are its subject. It is all part of the fun and Humphries is somehow able to create an atmosphere of such joviality that the audience are always ultimately treated with respect. Indeed it is clear that this show is a thank you, a love letter even, to all who have ever seen, encountered or endured any of Humphries' creations.  A fact reiterated when the man himself makes a final curtain speech as Barry Humphries; perhaps the most honest and touching element of the evening.
It is a fond farewell indeed.