Sister Act (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: 14-20 Aug: 16.10: 1hr 45mins)

“Energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

In my experience, condensed versions of musicals generally go one of two ways: they either trim the fat from the full version and present a slick and sizzling highlights reel (as in EUSOG’s Spring Awakening last year), or they come across as a slightly misshapen patchwork quilt of musical moments. Unfortunately, Edinburgh University Footlights’ production of Sister Act falls into the latter camp. However, some of its musical moments are really rather magical.

We all know the story of the show: aspiring and audacious nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier has to hide away with a group of nuns for her own protection, and in so doing transforms their choir into a team of sensational songstresses. Sarah Couper certainly gives it her all as Deloris, with hugely likeable sass and personality, which is more than capably offset by Tayla Steinberg’s harsh but witty Mother Superior.

It’s Alice Hoult as the timid Sister Mary Robert who vocally steals the show though, with a flawless rendition of the rousing The Life I Never Led. A masterclass in control, it’s a shame some of the other numbers lack the overall quality and power of this one: it really stands out as something special.

Yet when this production hits the sweet spot, it really does soar. The Raise Your Voice scene in particular is energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies. Caili Crow’s choreography is stylish, intricate and very deftly delivered, and for a few minutes here and there the performance really sparkles.

The main strength of this production overall is comedic characterisation, and director Ansley Clark has done a great job in bringing the best out of each individual throughout the performance. Nicola Frier is a revelation as the excitable Sister Mary Patrick, delivering laughs aplenty with every utterance; Adam Makepeace is a wonderfully dorky TJ; and Mhairi Goodwin brings a whole new level of vibrancy to Sister Mary Lazarus that I didn’t think was possible.

This production is quite hit and miss though, making it difficult to stay fully engaged with it throughout. While I won’t go into details of the technical issues which unfortunately blighted this production, other factors such as the (at times) awkward staging, the very choppy nature of lots of different quick scenes, and lack of palpable tension in the big moments all detract from what has the potential to be a really outstanding show. It all feels a little rushed and a bit too rough around the edges.

This a very commendable effort from the cast and company, but perhaps slightly too ambitious too pull off.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Auditions (Sweet Grassmarket: 3-13 Aug: 3.30: 65 mins)

“Fun and upbeat”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

An interesting concept for a musical, Auditions presents a series of vignettes from those who have been doing the rounds for a long time, sharing their highs, lows and learnings after years in “the business”. While many musicals seem to feature – and be aimed at – younger and lither casts, it’s nice to hear the voice of experience or a change, especially when there’s something there we can all learn.

The content covers everything you would expect of such a show, with a range of stories from type-casting, competition, nervousness, over-confidence, and sexually predatory producers, and each one, while brief, is a pleasant insight to the side of being a performer that’s not often put on stage.

My main problem with this show though is how bland it is, which perhaps suitably fits the theme: being about the almosts, maybes, and not-quite-good-enoughs. The songs are nice, with a consistent pop/musical theatre feel and tried-and tested structure and chord progressions, though there’s nothing musically or lyrically to make them stand out: I felt like I had heard each one a hundred times before. There’s a very touching moment late on covering a sensitive subject which brings some much-needed variation to the overall mood, but it’s almost too little too late to save the show from mediocrity.

The same can be said of the cast. Each of the four members have good voices – they capably hold their own – but don’t expect to be blown away by any powerhouse vocals. Perhaps the lack of radio mics means they are forced to keep something back to protect themselves, but for seasoned pros I was still expecting a bit more wow-factor.

While there is generally a good mix of songs in terms of subject matter, they are full of lyrical clichés and heard-it-all-before melodies. I lost track of how many references there were to skies of blue or the importance of staying true to oneself. Indeed, much of the staging and choreography is also very dated, with raised hands and dropped heads being very common features. Again, perhaps a hark back to yesteryear for how things used to be, but more originality and creativity would help make this show feel like something special.

However, what this show lacks in originality it makes up for in positivity: the numbers on the whole are fun and upbeat, with plenty of toe-tapping to be done. It’s a harmless hour of fun, which could make a very pleasant retreat from some of the more challenging work out there this August.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Company (Paradise in St Augustine’s: 4-12 Aug: 21.30: 2hrs 15mins)

“Rarely do you see this level of talent from an amateur group on a Fringe stage.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

Sondheim’s multi-award-winning Company burst onto Broadway in 1970, flying in the face of popular narrative-led musicals and instead presenting a series of vignettes around Bobby, a thirty-something man, happily single, but surrounded by couples who all want to see him get hitched. While the celebration of being happily unmarried may have caused quite a stir at the time, for today’s Tinder generation the themes still have great relevance, and Company comically dissects what being in a couple is really like.

And it’s the comic element of the show that EUSOG have really mastered with their interpretation. The sneaky looks, the perfect timing, the inflections and staging all contribute to the feeling of satire the whole musical embodies, and director Grace Dickson has done a marvellous job in weaving together one consistent style through what is really quite a fragmented production.

Of course, having the right cast helps, and this one is just oozing with talent and personality. Bella Rogers is a delight as airhead April, and Ellie Millar is on point as prudish housewife Jenny, whose attempts to swear while being stoned for the first time had me in stitches. But comically it’s Kathryn Salmond as Amy who steals Act 1 with a sensational rendition of the notoriously difficult patter song Getting Married Today. It’s fast, it’s controlled, completely in character and worth buying a ticket for for those few minutes alone.

Yet while I could really pick any number of songs as stand-out highlights of this performance, it’s Esme Cook’s The Ladies who Lunch that launches this show into the stratosphere. With depth, sensitivity and a killer belt, demonstrating maturity well beyond her years, Cook delivers a goosebump-inducing class act that deserves to be witnessed far and wide. Rarely do you see this level of talent from an amateur group on a Fringe stage.

And then of course there’s the main man, Ethan Baird who brings a subtle and amusingly awkward approach to central character, Bobby. His natural charisma and swagger make him instantly likeable, and he balances the role of observer and participant in the action with ease. His Being Alive builds and teases, much like the structure of the song itself, and the rousing final chorus is delivered with aplomb – a fitting finale to a powerhouse performance throughout.

The musical style and structure of Company isn’t for everyone, and at well over two hours (with interval) it’s quite a slog. At times the choreography lacks a little polish and pizzazz, and the sound levels could do with a bit more balancing out to allow some of the vocals to really soar, but weighing all that against the sheer heart of this performance, you’d really be mad to miss it. Go alone or go with company. Just go and see Company.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Paper Hearts the Musical (Underbelly Med Quad: 5-29 Aug: 18.40: 1hr 15mins)

“Potential to be a real best-seller”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A musical about finding love in a bookshop sounds like pretty much all of my favourite things in one. And just like everyone’s favourite independent bookshop, the first thing that strikes me about Paper Hearts is how little space there is to move around in on stage.  Unfortunately in this case it doesn’t work in the group’s favour, and if they had been used to rehearsing in a larger space, the translation to this venue isn’t effective enough to overcome many of the obstacles faced by that challenge: the choreography looks clumsy, performers squeeze past each other when moving about and the musicians are a bit too dominant visually – it’s a shame that this is the lasting impression I have of this show rather than the artistic merits, of which there are many.

The story follows Atticus Smith (Adam Small) – a book store manager and hapless writer – who is determined to finish his novel, even though his store is very quickly going out of business and is set to be bought by a corporate giant. But of course, there’s a convenient young writers’ competition he could enter and win to save the day. So far, so so. Throw into the mix a difficult relationship with his father and a chance meeting with the consultant set to take over the bookshop and an intriguing plot unfurls.

What I particularly enjoyed about this show in terms of narrative are the clever parallels between Atticus’s own life and the characters in his book, and the relationship he as a writer has with those characters. Even though the book is set in Russia in the 1940s, Atticus channels his situation through his leading character and inadvertently ends up resolving his own problems.

From a performance perspective, bizarrely it’s the Russian scenes that come across as the most genuine and accomplished, and these are the most enjoyable to watch. Much of the rest of the performance, however, feels very rushed. From the opening scene where characters are introduced, to Atticus’s break-up with his girlfriend, meeting someone else, having a huge argument the next day and winning a writing competition, it all seems quite superficial. There are lots of lovely ideas in there, but, much like the stage, everything is a bit too crammed in.

Liam O’Rafferty’s music and lyrics are tight, with several great original songs. Hot is a fun and sassy number with great personality, Shame is a cutting and comedic look at the flaws of the two central characters, and title song Paper Hearts has a real West End ring to it. All songs featured within the Russian scenes have great folk authenticity, so musically this show has a lot going for it.

I’d love to see Paper Hearts come back as a longer, more developed piece, and performed in a different venue that gives it room to breathe. It has the potential to be a real best-seller.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Spring Awakening (Paradise in St Augustine’s: 5-13 Aug: 21.30: 1hr 30mins)

“I’d encourage anyone into musical theatre to go and see it “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

With the band clearly visible on an otherwise bare stage, looking cool and every inch the 00s rockers in white t-shirts, EUSOG’s interpretation of Spring Awakening feels more like a concert than a traditional musical. The full (Broadway) version runs over two acts and well over two hours, but this is a stripped back, 90 minute version, which I have to say I prefer. It centres on the songs as vehicles to express emotion, with narrative, dialogue and choreography seamlessly fitting in around them. As a performance it’s compact, it’s flowing, it gets to the point and stays there, and to me one of the real triumphs in this production is how each number and scene overlap and blend, rich with energy, tenderness and life.

While musically Spring Awakening may not be as powerful as other rock operas like RENT, this cast do a fantastic job of squeezing every drop of emotion out of each song to make each lyric really hit home, and William Briant’s band let rip with rousing and powerful accompaniment throughout. The company perform every chorus number with great vitality, from the loud The Bitch of Living, to the very delicate and uplifting The Song of Purple Summer. The harmonies are great, the blending on point, and individual solo lines delivered with aplomb.

Some of the acting was a little shaky: Wendla’s rape and Moritz’s suicide didn’t ring as emotionally true as the rest of the performance, but this is a young company dealing with very difficult material, so we must cut a little slack – sometimes the professionals slip-up too.

It’s the power and energy of the cast that make this show a real treat though, demonstrating talent and professionalism far beyond what one might expect from students. Nitai Levi has astonishing control and presence as Melchior, Greg Williamson is a wonderfully pained Moritz with a great pop-rock voice while Isabella Rogers is also beautifully understated as Ilse. Caroline Elms and James Strahan capably perform all the adult roles between them, with great changes in character and authority to make them believable. A special mention to Strahan for his quick turnaround from the emotional funeral scene to playing a completely different character literally seconds later.

It’s such a shame EUSOG’s run ends this weekend, as I’d encourage anyone into musical theatre to go and see it – it really is a masterclass in getting the basics right. If I could, I’d go again.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: [title of show] (C Cubed: 4-29 Aug: 21.20: 1hr 30mins)

“The company’s voices blend beautifully to create some lovely moments”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I always get excited when a new and ambitious theatre company decides to put its own spin on a show that only received limited success its first time around, in order to try and find that winning formula. In this case, Cobbles and Rhyme attempt to give a very minimalist makeover to [title of show], which, though enjoyable, unfortunately ends up languishing in musical theatre mediocrity.

[title of show] is by nature the anti-musical – intentionally flying in the face of the fourth wall and big production values, using just a keyboard, a bare stage, four actors and and four chairs. This makes it perfect for translating to Fringe venues, and with some clever staging Cobbles and Rhyme effectively create sympathetic intimacy and a stripped back feel that really suits the show’s themes.

However, beyond this it is a shame to see that some of the basic flaws in the musical itself were not addressed, making it at times painfully obvious exactly why the show wasn’t a huge hit on Broadway. Granted, this is probably more down to terms within the performance rights than the company’s ability, but I can only critique based on what I see.

It takes the best part of 25 minutes and six songs to get past the “Let’s write a musical/I don’t know what to write” stage, and throughout the first half of the performance I felt like I learned next to nothing about the personalities of each character. It is only towards the end in Awkward Photo Shoot when tensions start to emerge and priorities conflict that we really discover their mettle, and it’s a shame this occurs so late. This is a show that just needs to get to the meat faster and stop being quite so self-indulgent and self-important.

Musically, it’s ok – there aren’t really any standout numbers, though closing tune Nine People’s Favorite Thing is quite hummable as you exit the auditorium. Complex harmonies are well delivered throughout and the company’s voices blend beautifully to create some lovely moments. The cast certainly give it their all, even though for me it’s the supporting characters of Heidi (Heidi Parsons) and Susan (Charlie Walker) who outshine their male counterparts with stunning vocals and gripping stage presence.

Overall it’s nice, it’s funny and it’s well sung, but I think it lacks that killer punch to have a really big impact at the Fringe.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Legally Blonde: The Musical (King’s: 16 – 19 March, ’16)

“Catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

For those who know the film, the premise of the musical is almost exactly identical – blonde bombshell and fashionista Elle Woods from Malibu, California is determined to bag her man, so she buries her head in books and chases him to Harvard law school in the hope of impressing him. The accompanying score is very poppy and upbeat, and while not to my personal taste, even the sternest of faces can’t help but bop along with some of the numbers.

On the whole, local troupe the Bohemians Lyrics Opera Company handle this big production very well – with some impressive dance routines and real powerhouse vocals throughout. The mind boggles at some of the quick changes performed, especially those done on stage, so credit where credit’s due for the risk and professionalism to carry those off. At times, particularly in Whipped into Shape, the performance felt a little flat and a stretch too far for this amateur group – perhaps a bit of shakiness on opening night or not quite having the musical tempos nailed – but otherwise it’s very well rehearsed and full of personality.

Lydia Carrington gives it her all as leading legal lady Elle Woods, and shines with fantastic energy and likeability. Her spirit never falters throughout – impressive considering she is barely ever off stage – and she shows great range and versatility to reflect the changing mood in each scene. However, it’s Lyndsey McGhee as Paulette who raises the biggest cheer of the night with the very moving Ireland (watch out for that towards the end of Act 1). Her voice is deep, rich and she delivers a knockout performance. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of her throughout the show.

While the leads very much hold their own throughout the performance, for me it is some of the cameo roles that make this production really enjoyable: Ross Stewart is eminently watchable as UPS guy Kyle, while Sam Eastop and Andrew Knox make a great comic pairing in Gay or European. And of course, there are dogs. Scene-stealing dogs. You have been warned…

Yes it’s cheesy, yes it’s American, and yes at times it’s a bit ridiculous, but it’s also a show full of catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty (my favourite line being “I see dead people” in relation to the rather bizarre inclusion of a Greek chorus). If you like the sound of all that then you’ll love this production.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 March)

Visit the King’s Theatre archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED