Wednesday, 26 April 2017

"Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell - The Musical", 25/4/17, Opera House, Manchester

I was fortunate enough to revisit the extraordinary Bat Out Of Hell in its final week in Manchester and I can happily say that the production is even better than before.

My first review can be viewed here.

Bat Out Of Hell is pure, unmitigated rock and roll electricity. It infuses the audience with the drive and energy that the greatest rock-n-roll excites and I think this is why every witness of the show I am aware of leaves the production buzzing with energy. It is indeed true that Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through in this astounding production which fuses the best elements of theatre, stadium rock and visual design to tell Jim Steinman's rock and roll retelling of the Peter Pan story:
Strat, and his gang, The Lost - a band of perpetual 18 year olds - live in the tunnels beneath the city of Obsidian which is ruled by the tyrant Falco. The day before Falco's daughter Raven's 18th birthday she encounters The Lost leading Strat to fall for Raven and she for him. Jealously guarding his daughter from the outside world, Falco is equally jealous of the eternal youth that genetic mutation has given the members of The Lost; a youth that both he and his wife, Sloane, ache to retrieve. Soon Strat is stealing into Raven's bedroom and luring her away from Falco Tower, much to his best friend Tink's chagrin. The course of true love never runs smoothly and events will turn sour for all parties until each is reminded of what really matters ...

There has been only the slightest of changes since my last viewing and this includes the removal of a line stipulating the separation period of Strat and Raven as being six months. Now it is left as a non-specific, vague period which does much to satisfy the problem that the jump in time created. That said I still think the song The Future Ain't What It Used To Be would serve excellently at this point with the song's intro playing under the graveyard scene between Strat and Zahara before Strat and Raven go on to share the song proper as the passage of time is visually marked.
I also still wish that the Strat/Tink relationship was developed earlier (I think that Strat's opening monologue - Love And Death And An American Guitar aka Wasted Youth - should be addressed to an admiring Tink; as a devoted follower watching his hero showing off, which would be a start) to further enhance the emotional impact of Tink's choices and ultimate fate. And I hope that the Zahara/Jagwire romance - which fails to offer an appropriate explanation for Zahara succumbing and falling in love with Jagwire - comes to offer the revelation that Jagwire needs to offer Zahara to convince her she can love again; I think the song Ravishing could serve a purpose here. Also requiring further explanation is Zahara's secret occupation - what reason prompts her subtle sympathies toward Falco and his company? At the moment it is little more than a convenient plot device. The final resolutions could also be further clarified, easily rectified by minor changes in direction; we need to see the animosity between Strat and Falco resolved so as to cement and encourage the Strat and Raven coupling at the very end of the show.
True, this is a rock and roll fairy-tale, but certain levels of logic have to be sustained and the above could only strengthen the narrative. Otherwise Jim Steinman's libretto is solid rock and roll fare, solidly presenting the story with little distraction. Steinman's flare for a humorous and/or abstract line feels perfectly at home in this unique world that he has developed with his prodigious musical catalogue further enhancing plot and character with ease. The fact that virtually everything Steinman has written was developed from his initial musical ideas can only further their integration into the plot.

The direction remains tight and focused and the precision and command of Jay Scheib's work is clearly on display throughout the production which expounds succinctly and the combination of Steinman and Scheib's imaginations is an explosion of divine inspiration for the stage.
Emma Portner's choreography is as tight as ever, even if some of the dancing is irrelevant at certain points. It might be worth the choreographer considering changing the motifs in such places to give them a new meaning, if the dances are to serve any purpose at all. That said, there still remain the times when the dances serve to further the entertainment quotient to great success (as is the case in the glorious staging of the brilliantly performed Dead Ringer For Love).
The band, led by Robert Emery, continue to burn through Steinman's score with the necessary excess, serving the composer excellently and it is worthy to note that the variations in the soundscape of the score (including the underscore pieces which themselves include some beautiful, haunting and thrilling writing) are executed to the degree that the music is never dull or repetitive. Gareth Owen's sound design is gauged pretty perfectly as is the lighting by Patrick Woodroffe which, like most elements of the production, takes the best of theatrical and stadium lighting and fuses them to create an appropriate palate, serving the visual and emotional elements of the production to perfection.
The visual elements of Finn Ross are even more impressive second time around and it becomes apparent how sympathetic the audacious set design of Jon Bauser is to them. The dynamic use of the set and the visuals is also all the more impressive on second viewing as this is a show which continues to offer new things on each viewing. The costumes of Meentje Nielson also offer a variety of homages which, for the most part, appeal on numerous levels; from the nods to the 70s and 80s to the t-shirt print of Jim Steinman onstage in one of the earlier incarnations of the musical. The only misstep taken by Nielson seems to be in Ledoux's primary attire (and hairstyle) - the most heavily 70s influenced onstage - which stands out like a sore thumb making the actor appear aged beyond his years, further opposing the idea that he is meant to be eternally 18. If this character's costume can be rectified before the London run then I, for one, will be a happier person.

Speaking of the cast - they have raised the bar even further and every single performer surpasses their previous performances. Dom Hartley-Harris' Jagwire is now on equal footing with the other leads; his performance is now saturated with an added grit and power which feeds into his vocals propelling him into the performing stratosphere. His connection with Steers' Zahara is electric and enthralling. Danielle Steers continues to be the sassiest presence onstage as Zahara and her voice has continued to develop with her husky, smoky quality lending itself to the sultry, foxy character and she is someone to keep an eye on. She is truly one of the most exciting performers I've seen for a long time. Aran MacRae's Tink, the one member of The Lost whose genetics froze him at an earlier age than the others, has developed further emotionally and his lament Not Allowed To Love is a heart-breaker. Rob Fowler as Falco and Sharon Sexton as Sloane have also surpassed themselves in their portrayals: Fowler is frightening and sympathetic in turns and the frustration and redemption of Sexton is palpable and their relationship is easily understood and translated to the audience whose response to their rendition of Paradise By The Dashboard Light (which is a moment of inspired conception and direction) is a real roof-raiser. The ensemble excel as a company and there are numerous moments where one or two members stand out as Anthony Selwyn and Olly Dobson do. The three primary members of The Lost - Jagwire (Hartley-Harris), Ledoux (Giovanni Spano) and Blake (Patrick Sullivan) serve as excellent vocal support in many numbers but really come into their own with their emotional performance of Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are. As Raven Christina Bennington continues to shine with her voice raising the roof on many an occasion, especially in her stunning rendition of Heaven Can Wait where she showcases her emotional command. The ebullient and striking Strat of Andrew Polec dominates proceedings and Polec is a strong leading man with his physicality continually pushing the boundaries and his powerful voice striking into one's soul. His chemistry with Bennington is utterly flammable and Polec's frame, movement, facial expression and outright etherealness perfectly encapsulate all the teenage angst and sexuality that Steinman has poured into his work and it's hard to think of anyone more perfect for the role. Something that could actually be said about pretty much every member of this exceptional and well-cast company.

Bat Out Of Hell really is an exceptional production and one Jim Steinman and his fellow creatives should take utmost pride in. Despite any minor flaws it is a musical of many riches and worthy of repeat visits and of many future productions; the material offers so much to work with that I can envisage many, utterly different takes on it, as any truly great piece can attest. Indeed, it is a musical that stretches the ideals of musical theatre. It is probably more akin to opera in many respects but is really unlimited by any genre. It is its own beast and that is something to take pride in, no matter what the future may hold.

Friday, 21 April 2017

"Funny Girl", Edinburgh Playhouse, 18/4/17

After a controversial season in London's West End, the Menier Chocolate Factory production of "Funny Girl" has hit the road for a tour of the UK, which I believe is the first (correct me if I'm wrong). The bio-musical is iconic as being the musical that propelled Barbra Streisand into super-stardom with her superlative recordings of the numbers and Oscar-winning performance in the movie version helping to define the musical as one of the most dangerous for any producer to stage, given that Streisand's shadow looms vast over the musical.

I previously saw the West End production and wrote about it here. I also recorded my first attempt at viewing the show when I was fated to attend that performance and that can be viewed here.

I hadn't expected Sheridan Smith to be part of the tour when I booked my ticket but, as it turns out, it was announced that she would share the role with Natasha J. Barnes who famously stepped in to the role following Smith's troubles. Smith, it was announced, would play Edinburgh. I won't lie, but my heart sank a little. Still, I decided to go in with an open mind and with a view to enjoy the show as much as possible. It was later announced that Darius Campbell, who was not scheduled for the venues where Smith was to perform, would now take on his West End role in Edinburgh (this may be as the actor is a Scot and Edinburgh would have been the only Scottish date he would not have done) and while I was quite happy to see another performer's take on the role (in this case it was originally announced that Chris Peluso was to star alongside Smith) it was not an unwelcome announcement.

The production started late, which is something that continually annoys me - if the ticket says a 7.30pm start then that is when it should start. No doubt late-comers were the usual culprit and I am all for closing the doors and refusing entry to those who cannot be bothered to take their seats before the announced curtain up time, whether it be through laziness on their part (I'm sure some people think it's like going to the cinema where there will be half an hour of trailers) or whatever. I totally understand there are events which one cannot control but a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Anyway ...

The production has undergone only minor changes between its run in the West End and the new tour and these are for practical purposes - in London travelators were used and these are replaced on tour by amended choreography and by the use of trucks to move set pieces. That and the ol' manual labour. The set is now also framed by a large border created to fill out the size of the set on the various stages on the tour. Unfortunately this border is rather blandly ugly and doesn't feel a natural part of the set. The background of the train station in the act I finale is also changed as the original West End version replicated the art deco styling of the Savoy theatre but, for whatever reason, it was decided not to duplicate this on tour.

It appears that the orchestra is pretty much the same size as that used in London but, surprisingly, the sound they produce is fuller and richer than was heard at the Savoy. Whether this is through the sound design or the acoustics of the Edinburgh Playhouse, I do not know. But the music sounded great.
In fact, much of the production looks more at ease in this touring production. Where the Savoy production looked a little cramped at times, here it allowed to breathe. Of course, this may change depending on the venue, but in Edinburgh at least it worked better.

The cast are as dynamic and as strong as that which featured in London and there are a number of stand out performances including the Mrs Brice of Rachel Izen, whose delivery is underplayed yet striking; Martin Callaghan's Mr Keeney, whose warmth and comedic timing is top notch and the Eddie of Joshua Lay, who is physically quite different to London's Eddie but is equally as adept vocally and choreographically. The relationship with Fanny is perhaps not so natural as it could be but this is perhaps due to the physical differences.
Darius Campbell's Nick Arnstein is better than ever and his deep, rich voice is stirring and one of the strongest in the production. His physical dominance is perfect for the role and he is equally at home with the odd comedic line as he is with the dramatic arc of Nick's fall from grace.
Shouldering the burden of the show is Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, the 'Funny Girl' of the title. Smith is markedly better than she was in London and her performance is composed less of the mugging that she was guilty of previously and she relies more on an honest, emotional take and the physical attributes of Brice's comedy. Here she is far more in control than I previously witnessed and is thus much more successful in her dramatic execution. Her vocals still remain her weak spot and her voice audible declines in strength and power as the show progresses, many crescendos passing by unmarked by Smith though her innate charm and warmth wins the audience over. I still think her solo songs should be lowered for her but if Smith were to undertake some serious vocal lessons to improve her technique and her breathing then this could be a most stunning portrayal. But as it is ... 
That said, Smith continues to win raves from other reviewers and the audience (no doubt familiar to her via her many television performances) but I simply cannot detach one aspect from the whole when there are less famous persons who would be crucified for the same lesser skill levels.

The direction and choreography work well though the revised book continues to make little difference to the musical. Jule Styne's music remains some of the strongest and is served well throughout. The added songs, again, add only minor improvements to the story-telling and the reworking of 'Who Are You Now' into a duet still irks somewhat, though giving Fanny and Nick an emotional duet is nice.

All in all the touring production, and its leading lady, is a sterling production of equal quality to the London production with some aspects even improved.