Jekyll & Hyde (Church Hill Theatre: 22 – 25 Nov ’16)

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde) Photos: Erica Belton

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde)
Photos: Erica Belton

“The talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was part of an unfortunate, if very narrow, generation whose first encounter with Robert Louis Stephenson’s monstrous Mister Hyde was the opening of a terrible Hugh Jackman movie. As a result, questions of the duality of man, the nature of morality and the dangers of unrestrained passion didn’t really factor in for a while. It seems fitting therefore that EUSOG’s latest outing follows the pattern of contrast underscored by its source material: it’s a collection of both dizzying highs and curiously disappointing lows.

Jekyll & Hyde loosely follows Stephenson’s original work, with a few new emotional complications thrown in. It is a musical exploration of the ambition, suffering and fear associated not only with the fraught Henry Jekyll, but its effects on his friends, family and even the city of London itself. And to begin –  as usual – with the ability on display, it’s considerable. The singing talent in this show can’t be denied, ensemble included. Ellie Millar and Giselle Yonace in particular offer utterly breathtaking solos as Emma Carew and Lucy Harris, culminating in a duet that could shatter glass for precision.

And the talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast. Special props go to Kirsten Millar as the world’s most entertainingly jovial prostitute; and to Jana Bernard, whose rare mix of graceful flexibility and natural showmanship lead to an array of angles that’d make an architect weep. Despite the occasional desync in a dance, the ensemble did their job with gusto and skill.

But any praise would be incomplete without hailing new face Stephen Quinn as the titular duo. Powerful voice aside, I found myself extremely taken with his portrayal of Henry Jekyll: he balances ambition, humanity and (perhaps most importantly) a genuine vulnerability during his two hour tenure as the good doctor, and it certainly stuck. Often, mild-mannered Jekyll is the more under-realised of the two, and it was refreshingly welcome to see such care put into his characterisation.

The question then, I suppose, is why this show only has three stars – and why have I personally left it unrated?

Despite the considerable strength of the cast, there are distinct elements of this show that detract from the overall fabric of the performance. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the way in which they handle Edward Hyde. At its core, there simply wasn’t enough contrast or intensity: often, the only difference between the two selves seemed to be his ragged choice of jacket, rather than any significant change in manner. The visceral glee, passionate brutality and utterly malevolent hedonism which typifies Hyde seems to get lost somewhere in the mix – and this is certainly not helped by fight choreography which is so floaty and strangely force-less that it occasionally comes off as comical rather than dramatic. Sitting next to the fantastic choreography of song numbers such as ‘Bring on the Men’, it seems worlds apart.

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And, most unfortunately, that fundamental element of violence and rage, which seems to be missing from much of the production, runs deeply through its other elements. Without that relish of cruelty, many scenes feel strangely bland for want of a contrast which just isn’t there. Combine that with mics which popped in and out more often than a first year halls cleaning lady and with variable volume levels, which would put Brexit indecision to shame, even when the show was at its strongest, then it was unsurprising that at times I could not hear a damned – or virtuous – thing.

That said, if you’re looking for a collection of entertaining and ear-pleasing song numbers, you’ll like what you get. However, if you’re wanting an exploration of human nature, brutality and debauchery, and a spot or two of vanquishing, then …. No. Upfront this is a strong production but it is let down by its emotional backdrop. For those who aren’t as pedantically focused on its content as I am, it’s certainly not going to sour your night – but walking home through the cold Edinburgh air I couldn’t help but think that Mister Hyde just didn’t show up.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 22 November)

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Guys & Dolls (Church Hill Theatre, 9-13 Feb. ’16)

Adam Makepeace as Nicely Nicely Johnson

Adam Makepeace as Nicely Nicely Johnson

“A feel-good romp of a show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Guys & Dolls has a special place in my heart, as it was my first footlights show at university some ten years ago. I remember the hours I spent rehearsing the gruelling dance sequences and complex harmonies, so I was amazed at how well this cast of Edinburgh University students delivered on both counts. The scene in Havana was perhaps a bit ambitious choreographically and could have contained more progression and showpiece moments, but overall the chorus numbers were performed with great vim and pizazz.

The stars of show also delivered with aplomb. Ellie Millar as Sgt Sarah Brown had a voice that danced with the purity and clarity worthy of a leading lady, and her rendition of If I Were a Bell struck a fine balance between comedy and stunning vocal range. Oliver Barker oozed with masculinity and presence as Sky Masterson, while Tom Whiston brought a likeable naivety to Nathan Detroit. Mae Hearons was a delight as Miss Adelaide, and really came into her own in act two with a string of dazzling songs.

While the vocals across the board during the first half of the production were a little shaky (I’ll put it down to nerves in front of a packed house early in the run), the second half was littered with many a five-star moment, including Adelaide’s moving second lament, a Sinatra-esque Luck Be a Lady, and the precise and energetic Crapshooters Ballet. However, for me, the vocal performance of the night was by Adam Makepeace as Nicely Nicely Johnson, who delivered a rousing and extremely capable rendition of the tricky Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat. A special mention also to Tilly Bartholomew as Arvide Abernathy, who was charming and note perfect in More I Cannot Wish You, and displayed great tenderness and well-placed comedy throughout the performance.

This show aimed to take the original musical back to its roots in the 1930s, and some nice touches in Grace Dickson’s choreography – particularly in Take Back Your Mink – felt very reminiscent of that golden era. Director Lucy Evans also cast some females in traditionally male roles as a nod to some of the period’s female gangsters, and, while a brave choice, I felt Evans could have gone one step further in allowing these characters to explore their femininity and interact with the male characters as women, rather than women pretending to be men. Still, Lila Pitcher was commanding as Chicago big-shot Big Jule in an interesting gender twist.

Yet for all the great work by the performers and band (who never faltered under Steven Segaud’s masterful musical direction), I was a little disappointed in the production values of the set and costumes. These elements were quite basic, and with a bit more attention could have added much more “wow factor” and style to be sympathetic to the show’s overall creative aims and chosen time period.

All-in-all, a feel-good romp of a show. Don’t gamble – buy a ticket.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 February)

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‘Chess’ (Church Hill Theatre: 10 – 14 March’15)

The Chess game between Anatoly Sergievsky (Kenneth Pinkerton) and Freddie Trumper (Ali Floyd). Photo: Alan Potter, StagePics.co.uk

The Chess game between Anatoly Sergievsky (Kenneth Pinkerton) and Freddie Trumper (Ali Floyd).
Photo: Alan Potter, StagePics.co.uk

“Gorgeous creativity”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

 

Fifteen years ago, in what can only be classed as a folly of youth, I went all the way to Frankfurt to see a production of Chess. I tell that anecdote to highlight two key points: firstly, that performances of this musical aren’t that easy to find, and secondly that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Chess nut. You can trust me, then, when I say it’s worth the bus trip to Morningside – because Edinburgh Music Theatre’s interpretation of the story is among the best I’ve seen.

Since its West End opening in 1986, Chess has had an appropriately chequered past. Written by Tim Rice and – of all people – Benny and Björn out of ABBA, it’s a 1970’s tale of Cold War intrigue set against the backdrop of a world-championship chess match. Being a musical, however, it’s also a schmaltzy love story; the juxtaposition doesn’t quite work, and the book’s been through a string of revisions in an attempt to find a winning endgame. Yet for all the plot’s faults, the soft-rock score ranks among my favourites, and there’s a sly humour to be found underpinning some of Rice’s more preposterous rhymes.

Without a doubt, the greatest strength of Edinburgh Music Theatre’s version is its engaging and hard-working ensemble. When they fill the stage, their voices truly fill the room, and I loved the little story vignettes that were often built into their tableaux. It’s a huge group of people, yet they’re made to seem even more numerous by a slew of rapid costume changes: far from the black-and-white styling you might be expecting, we’re treated to an unashamed riot of lumberjack shirts, sparkly pom-poms, leather hot-pants and flamboyant jeans.

There’s a gorgeous creativity to Mike Davies’ direction too – not just in the broad sweep, but in the minor detail, bringing out insights that are unexpected and new. A trivial example will show you what I mean: there’s a particular moment in a particular song when every director has the cast stamp their feet. It’s what the music seems to demand, and it captures the menace inherent in the East – vs – West storyline. But in this production, when the time comes, they look towards each other with cloying false smiles – turning the number on its head, to uncover a glorious comedy of manners.

Unfortunately though, the sheer size of the chorus occasionally overpowers the production. The iconic Anthem, for instance, is all about solitary defiance – and the impressive Kenneth Pinkerton was perfectly capable of holding the stage for it, without having twenty-odd singers troop into the foreground. More significantly, the chorus and the principals sometimes seemed to be in competition, with the leading actors’ lyrics often drowned out by a swelling accompaniment.

Among the other principals, it took me a while to warm to Ali Floyd as the American grandmaster Freddie Trumper; he lacked some of the boorish aggression his lyrics seem to imply. Still, he comprehensively won me over with his character-defining solo ‘Pity The Child’, which he performed with both vicious anger and electrifying restraint. Josephine Heinemeier also delivered some show-stopping moments as his partner Florence, while Lauren Gracie made an all-too-brief appearance as the Soviet grandmaster’s wife Svetlana. Gracie has a stunning voice, and it’s just a shame that the script (which, to be honest, isn’t all that big on women) makes us wait so long to hear it.

In the end though, the crowning achievement of Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production isn’t the solos or even the set-pieces, but the way it tells the story. The pace occasionally slips, but at their best they segue seamlessly from song to scene to song – building a sense of coherence and immediacy that even professional musical productions often lack. The climactic number ‘The Deal (No Deal)’ is genuinely exciting, presided over by a mischievous pair of god-like figures who delight in the havoc they’ve wrought. So if you’re tempted by this one, be sure not to miss it – that would be a folly at any age..

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer:  Richard Stamp (Seen 12 March)

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‘Rent’ (Churchill Theatre: 10 – 14 February ’15)

“Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

“Dove sono le Puccini?” The gondolier looked up excitedly, “le puttane?!” “Err… no mate. Le Puccini? Opera a palazzo.” The Venetian working-man seemed disappointed. “Non è così buono,” he muttered sadly as we glided off towards an intimate encounter with La bohème.

Italian Giacomo Puccini adapted the narrative from Frenchman Henri Murger’s vignettes about Paris’ bohemian denizens. A century after La bohème’s 1896 premiere in Turin, American Jonathan Larson’s rock musical reimagining opened on New York’s Broadway. From there Rent emerged for one of the longest, most commercially successful, runs in musical history. Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème have thus been around the block so many times, the Gondolier’s puttane might have seemed positively virginal by comparison.

It’s Christmas Eve in the East Village. It’s a time before hipsters. A filmmaker and a rock musician – two noble artists, both alike in poverty – are told by their ex-roommate, now their current landlord, that they must pay the back rent owed. Solemnly they refuse. Joe Christie (as filmmaker Mark) and Nitai Levi (as rock musician Roger) establish strong leads, demonstrating possession of the several narrative arcs, the prism through which Larson’s sketchy urban landscape emerges. Jonathan Ip as landlord Benny demonstrates a determined gravity that centres the action.

Rent’s cast of bohemian characters provide fertile ground for a company well-suited to clever character studies. As Tom Collins – the maverik, homosexual college professor – Benjamin Aluwihare stands out as one of those student performers you hope will graduate into the major league. It’s all the more impressive because he is sharing the stage, romance and tragedy with Scott Meenan (as Angel, Collins’ cross-dressing significant other).

Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna. Meenan is camp, courageous, charming and – above all – courteous – daring to share the limelight so as to shine more brightly.

Not since Lily Cade met India Summers has a sapphic combo been as hot as the pairing of Caroline Elms (as lesbian lawyer Joanne) and Roz Ford (as bisexual performance artist Maureen). Both have superb presence, a mastery of pace and comic timing. Together they’re an alchemy reminiscent of Candice Bergen in Murphy Brown, Carla Gugino in Spin City, or Moira Kelly in The West Wing.

If Rent was truly bohemian (rather than theatrical hand sanitizer) we might have seen Rachael Anderson tumbled into their heady mix in a ménage-à-hell-yeah. Anderson’s jaw dropping portrayal of erotic dancer Mimi slips the surly bonds of physicality, lifting this production into a godlike orbit, circling the clumsy trendiness of Lawson’s checklist re-rendering of La Belle Époque original.

Eilidh Bruce Bass’ costumes establish the production’s look and feel as high 90s – existing somewhere between when Fraiser stopped looking like Cheers, but before Friends stopped looking like Seinfeld. Her clever attention to detail provides a palette of subtle retrospection on the period, touching up where Rent’s oh-so earnest themes have faded. The costumes achieve the remarkable feat of blending with the set without being lost in it.

And it really is a brilliant set. The band are incorporated without being outsourced to a balcony or platform. The back lighting comes through grimy green industrial window panes, each one an individual tale of neglect underscoring the dramatic meaning rising from below. The ensemble draw the various levels together passing props up and down with never a fumble. The stage right lighting rig is part of the set. That tubular grey lattice – which in most productions needs to be blanked out by the mind’s eye – it’s hanging there, at an angle, bold as brass. Who’d have thunk it? Well Andrew McDivitt did and it’s why his set designs are worth the ticket price alone (and then some).

As musical theatre Rent is what it is from when it was. The songs aren’t especially catchy, the narrative arcs are a muddled rainbow, the characters are embalmed in worthy sentiment. Jonathan Larson’s tragic death on the opening night of his work in progress denied audiences the chance to see the tweaks and changes he might have made.

Still, it’s hard not to get excited when Footlight’s production time comes around. High professional standards abound, not least from the ensemble who supercharge everything with which they come into contact. First-timer Campbell Keith is first among equals for his infectious enthusiasm, commitment and drive.

For me, as an essentially sedentary being, watching this cast might be what a flightless penguin feels looking up at a flock of starlings – isn’t it marvellous! How do they co-ordinate like that? And what kind of fish do they catch in the sky?

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 10 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘In The Heights’ (Churchill Theatre: 11-15 Feb ’14)

In the Heights 2

bursting with life, energy and creative passion.”

Editorial Rating: Outstanding

Usnavi runs a small bodega in Washington Heights, the (very) upper-West Side district in New York City. His store is a focus point for his community, drawn to Manhattan from across Latin America. Usnavi has two ambitions, to return to his native Dominican Republic and to marry his beloved Vanessa. He lives a bohemian life shared with a cast of vibrant characters, his family, his friends, his customers, his neighbours – but change is in the air.

We enter to find that Sergeant Pepper has moved to Sesame Street. The brownstone shopfronts and stoops are characterful and real. They are offset with an interplay of glorious technicolour rainbows and abstracted geometrical shapes which conjure up images of NYC’s metro map. Not since the art deco glory of a parallel biopic of Coward and Novello at the 2012 Fringe have I so achingly wanted to inhabit a set.

As is known to anyone who has felt the wind rushing up his kilt at a rooftop Brooklyn wedding; as anyone will attest who has watched the the sun set over Astoria with a tumbler of Caol Ila in hand; the most important feature of the Manhattan skyline is the sky. It is a vast and magnificent canopy. How incredible it is then that this unequalled canvas, spread across the greatest metropolis there ever is or was, has been recreated in the dignified intimacy of Morningside’s Churchill Theatre.

On the set, between the sky and the street corner where Usnavi lives, towers a silhouette of the George Washington Bridge – a physical siren song, calling the dreamers to stray from their cosy familiarity. This landmark links sky and street in a set so artful that I am compelled to refer the reader to the 1755 poaching of the renowned Dr. Cullen from the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Further, I must state that the Footlights, in obtaining the services of Andrew McDivitt (a final year arts student at Weegie University) as Set Designer, have rendered a service to their fellow Edinbuggers of no less importance than Cullen’s installation in the medical faculty at Edinburgh – if they have paid for McDivitt’s return rail ticket, they should insist on tearing it up.

Many of Usnavi’s customers are cabbies working for Kevin and Camila Rosario’s taxi company, located across the street. Kevin in particular carries a weight of aspiration. Through sheer hard work he has raised his family’s fortunes to the point where his beloved daughter, Nina, can attend Stamford and climb the Ivy League into realms he can only imagine.

The Heights are abuzz when Nina’s returns. In her are stored many of the other locals’ hopes and dreams but she brings with her unsettling news which might unravel the industrious fabric of the community.

Benjamin Aluwihare as Usnavi heads an exceptional cast. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the American composer, rapper, lyricist, and actor who wrote In The Heights would be thrilled to see his characters brought to life so vividly. This is a big company but space is found for every member to shine. The ensemble are magnificent – lively, well-drilled, fluid – they would have to be in order to frame the superb character work going on around them.

It’s not just that Alex Poole captures Kevin’s arrogance without ever losing his pathos, or that Jordan Roberts-Lavery as Sonny is light without ever being thickly fluffy (think Fred Ewanuick in Corner Gas); Becki Clark brilliantly combines Vanessa’s carefreeness as well as her deeper longings and Aisling Brady uncannily inhabits the aged, matriarchal frame of Usnavi’s Abuela – what matters is that these talented team players can put two and two together and get five.

The relationship between Kirsty Findlay’s Nina and Nitai Levi’s Benny is heartfelt and deeply moving. With so much work to do they still make the time to give and take, allowing each other room to manoeuvre and time to shine. If Elayne Gray brings the same patient goodwill to her role as Footlight’s Señorita Presidente as she does to that of Carla, then it’s not hard to imagine how this mind-blowing production came about. Aluwihare tells us he aspires to continue acting to a professional level. You need a new ambition mate. That one’s done and dusted.

“Just ask yourself, does it do what it says on the tin?” It’s the best piece of advice a reviewer can have. In The Heights is billed as a toe tappin’, all singing, all dancing extravaganza and by Jove it is that all right! The acoustics aren’t perfect, the sound levels aren’t totally adjusted – but I don’t care. No-less-so than the build, the soundscape is evocative of the pop-up Havana Club Bar under the David Hume Tower two Fringes back – bursting with life, energy and creative passion.

I would like to own the CD of this production but that might not be practical for copyright reasons. What can be done, what needs to be done, what must be done, is to lock Dan Glover and his band permanently in George Square Gardens (there’s already a fence) so that everyone can feel like we felt hearing them play. The highest compliment about the music I can think up, is that it totally did justice to the set and performances.

I am frequently told to go sit in the corner by colleagues affronted at my suggestion that the problem with musical theatre is that constantly touring productions get coated in layers of lacquer until they are rigid and brittle. I don’t know whether Footlight’s four night run of In The Heights proves or disproves my point.

All I can say for certain is that Ronan Radin as Piragua Guy rests the case that we gents of a chunkier build can out awesome your backflipping, pirouetting, skinny-malinky long legs and steal even the biggest, brightest, brilliantest show you’re likely to see in Edinburgh before August.

outstanding

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 11 February)

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