+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.

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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.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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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RENT (Paradise in St Augustine’s, 7 – 30 Aug : 18.00 : 2hrs 40 mins)

“Full of the life and passion that the ethos of this show embodies”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There’s always something really special about seeing the closing night of a particular show, as they can often trigger performers into giving everything they have left in their bodies to deliver the performance of their lives. That’s exactly what happened with Uncompromising Artistry’s Edinburgh Fringe production of RENT.

Opening chorus number Rent was bursting with energy and was a fantastic introduction to the desperation, hardship and grit of 90s New York, while being full of the life and passion that the ethos of this show embodies. The company filled the stage with their presence and the theatre with stunning vocals, and it was a truly wonderful sequence. It seems somewhat unfortunate that after setting the bar so high so early on, the remaining chorus numbers, although excellent, were not quite able to live up to that show-stopping standard.

There were however, some exhilarating solo performances. For me, Johnny Newcomb absolutely stole the show as Roger, bringing a wonderful fragility to the character, while nailing every note he sung. He was captivating to watch in every scene, and showed a huge emotional range, even in the chorus numbers when he wasn’t centre of attention.

Injoy Fountain was also incredibly engaging in each of her minor roles, bringing bags of vitality to every scene, as well as a truly knockout vocal performance, including that riff in Seasons of Love. Zia Roberts as Joanne and Janet Krupin as Maureen really came into their own during Take Me or Leave Me, which was spine-tinglingly delivered, while Jonathan Christopher’s performance as Collins in the funeral scene was emotional enough to bring everyone to tears.

What really made this show special though was engagement with the audience and the cast’s ability to really bring us into the performance. During every chorus number the performers made eye contact with various people in the audience, always in character and with purpose. Seasons of Love was deliberately performed right at the front of the stage in one line, giving a very inclusive and welcoming feel to the show.

However, while showcasing some truly phenomenal individual moments, at times some of the staging seemed a little clumsy and laboured, with a few too many moments that relied on stage crew to move various things around on stage. In addition some of the choreography, particularly the death motif, seemed a bit over the top. But in all other respects this really was a tremendous effort and a very emotionally charged performance from still such a young company. Vive la vie bohème.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 30 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Bakewell Bake Off: A New Musical (C, 5 – 22 Aug : 17.00 : 1hr 10 mins)

“A sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It was only a matter of time before a GBBO-themed show made it to the Fringe, and this one has all the necessary ingredients for a sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser.

The plot is exactly what you would expect – an eclectic group of wannabe bakers pit their culinary skills against each other to please three ultra-competitive judges and be crowned Bakewell’s best baker. There are some interesting characters and relationships, including a cross-dresser, a nun, a woman obsessed with Christmas, an Asian doctor (who becomes the subject of some racist abuse), and it’s all hosted by the very talkative yet incredibly likeable hostess called Victoria Sponge.

The script is full of wonderful baking-related puns: from characters whose names include, Tina Tartan and Henrietta Apfelstrudel, to a nun’s “Desecrated Coconut” cake, which tickled me the most. Indeed the writing is clever throughout the piece with lots of quips and wordplay to keep the audience amused, even if the narrative itself is pretty thin.

For me Sophie Forster as catty judge Griselda Pratt-Dewhurst delivered the best comic performance with an array of scathing put downs, while rival judge Hugh Dripp, played George Rexstrew, commanded the stage with great presence and energy.

Overall the singing was good, but at its best in the choral numbers. One can’t be too critical of sound levels of a student production in the Fringe space – the soloists did as best they could and with a full band and microphones I am sure they would have dazzled. This was most evident in gospel number Bake Your Way to Heaven, where I was longing for Imogen Coutts’s vocals to soar above the rousing backing singers. Alas, a commendable effort.

The choreography was perhaps more impressive, with a great range of routines for the varied musical numbers, all delivered deftly and with great energy. My favourite was the tango to the cleverly named “The Original Bakewell Tart”, which was performed with great finesse.

At an hour and 10 minutes this show is a decent length, although I feel that one or two of the characters could have been sacrificed to allow us to get to know the others better and build up more tension between them. There was a lovely moment towards the end between Freddie Twist (Charlie Keable) and Susie Sunflower (Ros Bell), who formed a very believable romance throughout the competition, and more layers like this would help turn this show from being good into really great.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED