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"Monkey Bookshelves"
Reviews of books, CDs and DVSs

 

"So you want to tread the boards..."

By Jennifer Reischel.
JR Books Ltd. £16.99. ISBN: 1-906217-02-5 or 978-1-906217-02-0
Available from Amazon.co.uk
www.performingarts-auditionguide.com is the author's official website.

Acting is your passion, but how to make it your career? This author has been there, done that, (literally) borrowed the "I'm the star and you know it" T-Shirt, and now writes the book. Experienced enough to offer a balanced view, yet still close enough in age to recall her training days and empathise with teenage readers, Reischel covers just about everything the aspiring thespian may wish to know.

The book mixes practical and personal advice, organised in handily bite-sized sections.General topics like choosing your school, finding funding, the cost of everything from clothing to lessons and living in London are dealt with before moving on to more individual needs. These include audition piece suggestions - play and musical - with tips on how to handle auditions themselves, how to find good tutors and even a little on important matters like tax and visa requirements for working abroad. Alternative careers both in and allied to the industry also get a mention, and a glossary of theatre terms should prove useful to those who don't know their 'stage right' from left. Most originally, the tricky subject of convincing loved ones that acting really is a suitable a job as any other is covered in depth - and should prove helpful to both auditionee and concerned family members.

Perhaps the only omissions are the darker side of the business. Dealing with the stress of continuous unemployment, obsessive fans (even the least well known have awkward encounters at stage doors), and warning of issues surrounding unwise career choices early on ("I was young, I needed the money" has a nasty way of biting later) might have been useful. A mention of practical safety tips for travelling home late after a show or visiting unknown audition places might have gone down well in the London section too, but these are minor items in a book which covers practically everything else.

Grounded and sensible advice which, as the writer stresses, isn't prescriptive but assistance 'from one professional to those who ask' is the strength of this publication. Lightened by accounts of her own attractively scatty experiences at auditions, Jennifer Reischel has penned a "must read" for anyone wanting act professionally, and a "must buy" for anyone seeking a gift for the stage-struck this season.

___________________________________________________

"Stella! Mother of Modern Acting"


By Sheana Ochoa
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books / Hal Leonard / Backbeat. £24.99. ISBN 978-1480355538
Available from Amazon.co.uk.

A faint bell rang at the name “Stella Adler” when I was offered a review copy of this book. That changed to a loud clang after the first line of the introduction. Of course. Stella Adler. One of the greatest exponents of the acting craft in the 20th Century.

Sheana Ochoa’s biography is as much about the development of modern American acting skills as it is about the lady herself. That’s down to the fact it was Stella’s experience with the “Group Theater” in the early 1930s which spawned the Adler Method, Lee Strasberg’s Method and a host of other Stanislavski-style approaches which are all practised today.

The lady herself was, more or less, a living history of the theatre. From infancy appearing on the Yiddish Theatre circuit in New York – part of the famous Adler family troupe – to wishing to be part of an American National Theatre (the “Group Theater” experiment) and on via the earliest days of Hollywood and the studio era to eventually becoming one of the most renowned teachers of all time. The lady was there, at the centre of it.

Stella knew everyone in the industry. Stanislavski himself, Charlie Chaplin, and later trained names like Robert de Niro and Marlon Brando. Yet that isn’t the surprise...

... her political career is even more startling. A skirmish with Communism, narrowly avoiding indictment but making the “blacklist,” wasn’t all. This woman was prepared not only to speak out about the Holocaust while it happened (and was initially ignored by much of the USA), but was pro-Zionist enough to actually do something extraordinary to help the rebel army there. Just what, you’ll need to read the book to find out.

Ochoa’s text seems to keep pace with her subject’s life. The early scenes on the Lower East Side bustle with descriptive energy. The chapters about the “Group Theater” struggle with the same circular introversion that they did. Stella’s political expeditions and personal relationships feel as precarious as they were and her teaching days brim with energy again.

The only jarring notes are a few passages where the author decides to stretch her own credibility by using the terms “she would have,” seemingly inventing a situation where there was no need. A pity, as it almost weakens an otherwise meticulously researched work. Oh, and for a British reader like the monkey, there’s another small snigger over the “Lion’s Restaurant” of post-war London. It’s “Lyons Corner House” of course. Hopefully a detail corrected in a later edition.

Simply, this is an important work as it collates and distils umpteen disjointed accounts and miscellaneous notes about a person who shaped an entire culture into a single volume. Readable and impressive in its scope, this is a valuable book for theatre historians, and for any actor or observer wishing to know more about just how “the Method” came to be. You’ll find it here, from the lady who really knew and “was there” – the Stella star at its dawn.
___________________________________________________

"Confessions of a (struggling) actress"

 
By jo blogs
Big Finish Productions Ltd. £8.99. ISBN 978-1-78178-035-0.
Available from Amazon.co.uk.

There’s several outstanding books for aspiring musical theatre performers. “So You Want To Tread The Boards” and “So You Want To Be In Musicals” are excellent, full of practical advice underpinned by personal experience.

Jo Bloggs goes beyond that. Her book isn’t about the process of training, nor the joy of landing that huge first job (though she touches on both). No, this is based on Jo’s blog (hence the pseudonym) – a daily record of just how a musical theatre actress survives when she can’t be on stage.

Each blog entry is classified as either a “Confession” or an “Audition File.” The “confessions” are how she passes her days. A succession of low-paid jobs, some at least in the companionable offices of a theatre ticket agency, but others in the harsher realities of retail and care work. Jo makes them all sound more fun than they are, but the reader is always aware just how those passing days grind her down and why expensive music and dance classes become ever more a haven.

Her “Audition Files,” however, raise the question of just why she puts herself through it all. Repetitive, maybe, but each is a slight variation. They add up to finally “cracking the code” and landing a job; at which point the endless accounts suddenly make sense as the harshest of learning curves.

Adding to the enjoyment is the brilliant device of occasional “Questions” she’s asked, and the “Answer” she gives... plus the “Honest Answer” – bitingly funny, with a just tinge of vicious melancholy. Andy Peters also provides some brilliant cartoons, bringing Jo’s hopeful tales to amusing visual life.

Perhaps a little more editing might have helped put some of the stories into clearer order – she passes her driving test near the end of the book, but talks of driving herself to auditions near the beginning. The odd theatrical term like “track” isn’t explained to casual readers either. Also, I’d say that songs were “belted” rather than “pelted,” but these are minor quibbles.

What’s abundantly clear is that Jo’s life is very much typical of most musical theatre performers. The gifts she has, her sparky personality, determination and strength to survive the walk into each audition simply aren’t enough. Surviving the deepest self-doubt created by constant rejection; and the growing awareness that being that good isn’t enough – even brilliant can be mediocre compared to the next actress; all seem almost inevitable in the career she chose, and will come as a surprisingly raw realisation for readers.

Thought provoking, and a superb reality-check for those who think musical theatre work really is as easy to break into as TV makes out. The reader unfamiliar with the theatre world will never look at a musical actor on stage again without knowing just how hard it was to get there... and hopefully will also treat box office assistants with the respect they deserve too...
A copy should be in every careers library, and a vital gift to those wishing to follow in Jo’s footsteps (even if, as she says, she would prefer you not to – she doesn’t need the competition, thanks very much!).
___________________________________________________


"Sondheim, A Celebration At Carnegie Hall"

(region 0 DVD)

Filmed in 1992, this is a unique record of the cream of Broadway and Hollywood celebrating the crème-de-la-crème of stage musicals in the most famous concert hall of all.

From an hilarious Bill Irwin introduction until the appearance of the Man himself to introduce the finale, this is 85 minutes of pure joy. If you need just a single reason to buy, Daisy Eagan’s “Broadway Baby” is so unmissable that the monkey watched it three times in succession. You’ll see why… and the number will never be the same again after. If that is too frivolous, Patrick Cassidy and Victor Garber’s “The Ballad of Booth” is a reminder that “Assassins” is a fine work made even better with stunning vocals and careful timing.

All the other heaviest weights of the Great White Way check in as you’d expect. Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Dorothy Loudon and Bernadette Peters are present and correct, doing their stuff as impressively as usual. Liza Minnelli and Glenn Close surprise too, reminding us of their depth as performers. Before reading the DVD case, guess their allocated numbers (remember, Daisy did “Broadway Baby,” to make it easier); and award yourself a second viewing for getting them right.

For the gentlemen, a choral of “A Weekend in the Country” serves to showcase voices including Kevin Anderson and Mark Jacoby; while the Boys Choir of Harlem combine with them to prevent the ladies having a complete victory in the evening. It is quite interesting how many female characters Sondheim writes for compared with male ones, though.

Paul Gemignani (with thrilling musical arrangements), Susan Stroman, Scott Ellis and David Thompson have created an evening which will burn indelibly on the memory. Luckily, SonyBMG Musical Entertainment capture it on a DVD that any musical theatre fan will want in their collection.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
___________________________________________________

"Stage Mum"

By Lisa Gee.
Hutchinson. £14.99. ISBN: 9780091921392
Available from Amazon.co.uk
www.lisagee.net is the author's website.

Landmark revival “The Sound Of Music” at the London Palladium in 2006 may have chosen its leading lady by television vote, but the cast is larger than a single publicly-elected new star. With children a key feature of the show, how do producers find enough of them to keep Maria busy? Six-and-a-bit-year-old Dora Gee was one volunteer keen to become a Von Trapp… with trepidation, “mother superior” Lisa agrees to let her audition; this is their tale.

Subtitling her book “When showbiz happens to your child” rather than “Connie Fisher, My Part in Her Triumph” demonstrates just how seriously Lisa Gee took keeping her daughter’s first stage experience in perspective. Deeply scared by “child star burns out in adolescence” stories and without any knowledge of the business herself, she prepares for the worst but instead is often pleasantly surprised.

Much of the appeal of this book is the immediacy of Lisa’s writing. Even though we know Dora bags the part, the earliest chapters – all titled with quotes from the show’s lyric – are a measured mixture of mundane family life dappled with the pleasure of anticipation and shadows of potential failure. We live in the same moment as the author, where every meeting, letter and email could “make or break” the fantasy… and the laundry still needs doing.

Interlacing descriptions of audition and rehearsal processes, seeing her daughter on stage for the first time, opening-night parties and settling into the run; Lisa interviews many in the business and considers objectively just how wise it is allowing your child to join a dropout apprentice nun’s adopted brood for six months.

It certainly isn’t the money. Dora was paid far less than the price of a decent stalls ticket each night, while the parents counted themselves lucky to get even a proportion of their own travel expenses paid. The true gain, as Lisa concludes by chatting with parents and professionals, is building confidence by channelling youthful energy and creativity into something good.

Lisa’s maternal thoughts and feelings, observations and reflections are an informative perspective for anybody with a stage-struck child. In the future, Dora may choose West End stars or NASA ones. Either way, in this book she will have a highly readable and entertaining record of a very special adventure; a pleasure we are lucky to share.
__________________________________________________

"How To Produce A West End Show"

By Julius Green.
Oberon Books. £14.99. ISBN: 9781849430258
Available from Amazon.co.uk

As you slump into your faded, appointed-for-midget West End theatre seat, it’s easy to forget that somebody, somewhere, has invested thousands of hours (and many more pounds), to entice you there - and entertain you once you arrive.
It’s not that difficult to pick up from “behind the scenes” TV documentaries or occasional newspaper stories how the creative process works on stage. Far less publicised is the work of the person who initiates the project, draws the whole thing together and takes ultimate responsibility.

This book unmasks the West End producer as being... not the big man standing at the back, enormous cigar in one hand / attractive leading lady’s waist in the other (unless it’s Bill Kenwright and Ms Seagrove of course).

No, it’s actually the starving optimist in the cramped office, buried in stacks of prospective scripts and casting details, impenetrable contracts for everybody from lighting technicians to the theatre cat, scenery blueprints and a huge stack of bills. Not to mention a “break glass in emergency” box containing an American “Approved Productions Contract” for when ‘you have lost the will to live.’ Navigating the whole, as this book constantly reminds us, requires three ring circus skills. Multiple plate-spinning with one eye on the budget, the other on the calendar and all fingers crossed it’ll come together to confirm script, star, venue and finances that’ll put the show onto the stage. Oh, and you should have more than one project on the go, too, of course.

Broken down into obvious steps – forming a company, budgeting, raising investment, hiring venue, choosing the show, finding the right cast and crew, marketing and even closing – what this isn’t is a textbook. Instead, it’s a distillation of knowledge acquired from many years of practical experience, levelled with a laconic wit plus the odd anecdote or five from the sharp end of the business.

For those actually aspiring to produce, it’s an excellent background in industry practise and terminology; and the sections on accounting and contracting are particularly helpful. Producing outside the West End, with other producers and even Broadway are touched on, making it even more comprehensive.

Interested regular theatregoers, and those like the monkey who are in other areas of the industry, will gain a deeper understanding and greater appreciation of what it takes to create and sustain a production - helped by the very readable style.
Of course, no book on producing would be complete without reference to the greatest of all time. Bialystock and Bloom’s theory of raising more money than the show needs, then keeping the balance when it flops (as nobody then expects a return) is thus fully explored.

As Green points out, the central flaw is that it’s pretty well impossible to raise the basic investment, let alone more. Still, he doesn’t then go on to note that you couldn’t, if you could... On the other hand, having read the entire book, it’s more than sensible to conclude that, for those in financial difficulties, a visit to a local jewellers equipped with half a brick and a pair of tights is going to yield a more certain return – and about the same jail sentence – with none of the hassle or paperwork.

Happily, he finishes with the story of one woman going from an idea to worldwide success, based on simple faith in her material. For those similarly inspired, or who hope they might be, this book certainly shows you where to begin. Highly recommended.
__________________________________________________

"Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting*
*But were afraid to ask, dear"

 
By West End Producer.
Nick Hern Books. £10.99. ISBN: 9781848423473
Available from Amazon.co.uk

This is a big book. Big in scope, big in information, big on detail and most of all, big in personality. Quite possibly the most important book about theatre since “Cats, The Book of the Musical” (West End Edition). If you want to work on the London stage, in film, television or even advertising haemorrhoid creams, it’s compulsory reading.

From impressing the casting director at audition, to finding that “G Spot” on stage and surviving a national tour, the hugely experienced and effusively inebriated West End Producer shares years of wisdom as he guides the performer with unsteady hand.

Most importantly he reminds all actors, whatever their experience, that there are both right and wrong ways to do absolutely everything. The importance of sharing gifts, stage space, talent (and, on occasion, fluids) are stressed. The vital importance of not sharing too much information, personal cash or the casting director’s lifestyle even more so.

So comprehensive is this book, it even provides actors with a complete “how to plan your day” guide, both when in a regular run on stage or during rehearsal. In particular, the advice on preparation (laying out your script to leap across the pages at the start of the day) makes anything Stanislavsky has written look positively old-fashioned, if not totally redundant.

The casual non-performer is also rewarded with a rare insight into how producers view them, and indeed a moving final page pays tribute to those in the audience and has wise words on how ticket prices must be set to encourage them in future. Even better, vouchers allowing theatregoers to interact at close quarters with actors and even try a role for themselves are included at the back of the book – and can be redeemed when the Producer gets his scheme is up and running.

In summary, any reader can follow these simple instructions to enjoy a long and successful career in the business he calls “show,” just so long as they remember to bring their own hobnobs.  
__________________________________________________


"Hey Producer"
A CD. Catalogue number PM003
Available from Amazon.co.uk

You are a musical theatre composer with a trunkful of great show tunes... but the world prefers the ‘tried and tested.’ Danny Davies resolves the problem by releasing his ideas here on CD.

Appropriately, the disc kicks off with the attention grabbing cry of “Hey Producer” – crazy theatrical exhibitionist Julie Atherton issuing the call. Her vocal gymnastics - running sweet ingénue to vamp - makes her final threat to undress just to grab attention so credible you feel deep sympathy for her gay victim.

Later, from the same potential show “Living The Dream,” “I Need You Broadway,” gives Stephen Weller the opportunity explain just why performers like Julie Atherton and himself crave the energy of musical theatre. A show concept worth developing, feels the monkey.

Another potential show idea, a cycle about University old “Friends Reunited” occupies a further three tracks. First up is “Falling Rain,” with “Fall Into Heaven” and “This Dream’s Not For You” appearing later. All three adequately capture the narcissism and opportunism of University life translated into adulthood, but perhaps yet require the fermentation of stage rehearsal - Laura Selwood’s voice in particular might contribute well to the process.

Finally from the ‘concepts’ bank, “Forgive Me,” is apparently a rock/ballad attempt to musicalise Count Dracula’s remorse. While (as others have proven) the subject is tricky theatrically; the song itself, with Tom Parson’s energy, is a pleasing contrast to the predominance of slower numbers in the track list.

We are also treated to a completed theatre work. “Face To Face,” Davies’s first project, follows the relationship between Sir Frederick Treves and Joseph Merrick (Victorian England’s ‘Elephant Man’). In “Twice The Man,” Merrick addresses the frailty of being alone, and his hopes for the potential of true friendship. A true ‘stage musical’ piece, Peter Polycarpou demonstrates years of experience to land effortlessly a difficult theme. Immediately following it with “Picture This,” with Merrick as a medical lecture exhibit, heightens the impact. A twinkling melody and heartbreaking lyric image provide well judged contrast.

From the same show, “Who’s The Greater Fool,” is of deceptive simplicity; Gemma O’Duffy tackling (with some vocal discomfort) twisted love – suggesting a potential special moment in a live stage production. “Isn’t It Strange,” another female ‘character’ song, is sweetly performed by Kirsty Hailes. Powerful, some simplistic rhymes aside. Still with the same show, and penultimate track on the disc “Shadows of Evening” has the feeling of a number from “Chess.” Appropriate as Shimi Goodman plays out an emotional endgame with beautifully judged orchestral accompaniment.

This album contains also three tracks that, as song-writers are wont to do, simply ‘had to be written.’ “One More Night” might actually fit into the “Friends Reunited” score. Chris Thatcher and Alison Jear are as well matched vocally as the characters they play here. “Turn Around” gives David Berkovitch and Gemma O’Duffy a second chance to shine in a track that might also strengthen the same score, perhaps. Last of these ‘free’ numbers “Now You’re Near” could easily be a show tune too. Shona White fans will love it, while those who don’t know her voice will be fans by the end of it.

Closing the disc is the gloriously catchy choral “Shine On Down.” Cut free from a record producer’s grasp, it became the anthem in 2011 of “Dress Circle,” London’s beloved showbiz shop that faced closure due to high rents. Used at its benefit show, a galaxy of musical theatre stars celebrate their (and their audiences’) love of everything ‘stage musical.’

And that is really what this album is all about. Sharing all that is special in musical theatre creativity. From playing alone with songs and concepts, to finding the right collaborators to bring them to life, this is one man’s inspirations presented in a rewarding, generous gesture to all fans of the genre.
__________________________________________________


"Shona White: I’ll bring you a Song"

A CD. Catalogue number VIB008
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Shona White is an established musical theatre actor with a loyal fanbase. This album brings her vocal storytelling skills to a wider public, with a voice that brings out the most elusive meaning in any song.

Opening with “Tell Me On A Sunday,” from the song-cycle of the same name, a mature approach is captivating, and contrasts beautifully with the next song, “As Long As You’re Mine,” a younger number recalling her time in “Wicked.” A passionate relationship with Daniel Boys has a searing honesty in every line.

That same passion reaches even greater heights during “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten.” The disbelief at her good fortune is evident in every note and sustained to the very end.

Returning, mid-album, to a trio of theatre songs, “Easier” (from ‘In Touch’) begins by attempting a sharp contrast in its simplicity, a guitar and little else. As the number continues, the begging for some easier solution reveals suddenly just how complicated things are beneath the surface. Later, “Easy to Say” (from “Over The Threshold”) provides another take on the dilemma.

Following these, “I Want To Know” (from RSVP ASAP) is a fascinating take on the classic “I want a man” theme. Caught up in her fantasy, the upbeat pleasure taken in imagining the right person is brought to a stunned defeat in the final line.

“Nobody’s Side,” (from “Chess”) could have been a conventional choice. Given an angrier rendition than usual here, it’s interesting to judge whether the singer is angrier with herself or the world, as repeated listening will change your opinion each time.

Best of all is “I’ll Bring You A Song.” Yes, it’s about the wearing down of a singer on the road, but it sums up the whole album perfectly. This is the Lady who sings songs. Beautifully. Following it with the prayer-like “Ae Fond Kiss” underlines the ‘person behind the performer’ theme rather well.

To finish, the wonderful Don Black lyric of “To Sir With Love” is given a new dimension, as a tribute to the perfect partner Shona has been searching for throughout the disc. A “bonus” ‘How Bout A Dance’ simply confirms that the right person is everything to a singer who can express so much in song.

Here is an incredible recording voice that deserves to be heard by the widest possible audience. Well selected songs exploring an idea to a solid and satisfying conclusion make this album unmissable. __________________________________________________


"Jesus Chris, Superstar"
NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN OR THE EASILY OFFENDED.
A CD. Catalogue number VI8010
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Forget “reality TV” documentaries. This CD is as close to a genuine “fly on the wall” experience about what goes on in a musical theatre actor’s mind (as anybody would probably want to get)... Bawdy and explicit as only theatre humour can be, it’s certainly an ‘after the watershed’ listen, in more ways than one.

Conceived as a mixture of songs, plus a few sketches based on real experiences of two friends-in-greasepaint, there’s enough material here for a brilliant Edinburgh cabaret evening; and some outstanding comedy writing on display.

It all boils down to just two themes: love, well, sex really; and the frustrations of trying to get acting work when everybody is just out to exploit or humiliate you - sometimes both. The whole album works best if the listener has a) a pretty good working knowledge of theatre jargon and b) a liking for their musical theatre numbers served up “twisted.”

Starting the disc as it means to go on, the “Sensitive Song” from musical “Cops” is a prime example of ‘when theatrical ballads go bad.” Combined with later “In Short” (from “Edges”) these are flows of outrageous vitriol on the subject of ending relationships. “Love Song” and “Sex” do little to build bridges either, while “Somebody Kill Me” from “Wedding Singer” is simply a suicidal rant invoking hilarity rather than sympathy.

Not helping, the solo alternative, “I’m In Love” may well be picked up by Ann Summers for an advertising campaign and in-store atmosphere music.

There’s an upside, though, with several songs about (admittedly slightly depraved) happier times. “The Morning After You Do It” is an openly triumphant celebration... of events probably better kept private. Continuing the disconcerting, “Sensitive Male Best Friend” is combination to worry the ladies, and “To Excess” a bald warning... particularly if your name is Clare. Oh, and neither is likely to prove much of a legal defence either.

The best track on the album, “Lullaby,” also won’t impress a jury. Neatly capturing the cynicism pervading the whole subject, it’s the filthiest but most searingly honest bedtime tune never sung to a child. Writer Stephen Lynch concocts simply the funniest number the monkey has heard in ages – and you’ll be humming it (subversively) for hours.

Working the second theme, that of exploring the actor’s experience in depth, “I’ll Always be the understudy” will have anybody whose ‘track’ is being coveted by that ‘swing in the wings’ watching their backs for sure (the monkey told you a knowledge of theatre terms is required!).

Scattered among these songs are a few musical interjections, plus some hilarious / wince-inducingly familiar (depending if you are an actor or not) sketches by Chris and friend Mathew. The best is a cleverly constructed audition, complete with every stereotype that can be crammed behind a folding table in a sweaty hired rehearsal room. Almost as good are the verbatim records, sorry, parodies of conversations with Chris’s agent – a man determined to exploit Chris to the best of his abilities... and almost succeeding. With agents (and, in an early sketch) friends like these, no wonder Chris’s dreams of superstardom are still unfulfilled.

Still, we do get a superb rendering of “If You Were Gay” from “Avenue Q.” The show Chris was starring in at the time the CD was released, it features Jon Robyns and in my opinion surpasses for timing the original cast recording version. There’s also “Chips Lament” from “Spelling Bee,” again benefitting from immaculate comic delivery. Bonus track, sweetly done “Rainbow Connection” is final confirmation of the hope that strands come together in the end and that talent will triumph, despite advice from friends / agents / casting directors.

Oh, and to complete it, the quotes on the liner notes are worth reading too. A must as a gift for any musical theatre actor, adult musical theatre fan with a twisted sense of humour and any cynic who has learned the hard way what love and life really are.
__________________________________________________

 
"Shakespeare’s Sonnets"

 (region 0 DVD)
Click here to buy from Amazon.co.uk

This is like having a cast ‘producers can only dream of’ sit on your bookshelf, ready and willing to recite beautiful verse at your whim.

For those like the moneky who know little of the sonnets beyond comparing a loved one to a summer’s day, this disc is something of a revelation.

It’s easy to see how they fit with the Bard’s stage works. 94, recited by Polly Frame is like something from the Scottish Play, 154 a ‘Director’s Cut DVD Extra’ from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for example.

Even clearer is the modern day relevance of it all, as a dishevelled Stephen Fry demonstrates that 130 was a precursor to Les Dawson and all other irreverent ‘partner’ jokes; while 50, in the hands of Simon Callow, is close to “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

There’s wisdom: 70 being as good as “The Merchant of Venice” for legal advice, 29 and 30 on the importance of reputation, 148 cautioning the exercising of judgement; and of course plenty of talk about love. From the lachrymose 145’s touching outpouring from Jo Stone-Fewings, to happier commentary – 91 is worth studying as a declaration par excellence.

One principal enjoyment is that these pieces are not just delivered by actors. Best of all is Cicely Berry, Director of Voice and Text with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her “Th’expense of spirit is a waste of shame” should be studied closely by anybody taking to the stage, whether with Shakespearian or modern text.

There’s regional UK accents galore, with a fiery Niamh McGrady, mellow Tunji Kasim and of course notable David Tennant among them. From the USA, Kim Cattrall (apparently originally from Liverpool) and James Shapiro have accents which (the monkey seems to recall) may be even more authentic with the period than the measured perfection of Patrick Stewart or Dominic West.

Also interesting is the way in which each sonnet is delivered. The careful voice coach already mentioned, the dramatic acting of Fiona Shaw and the other stage folk or the questing academic investigative from Katherine Duncan-Jones. Whatever the background of the speaker, each is delivered against a varied setting, some modern, some ancient, others simply artistic, which add visual colour to the words.

Of course, with 154 sonnets to film, there’s the odd one which might benefitted from different delivery, but the overall standard is remarkably high. The only other criticism the monkey might make is in the navigation of the disc. While the menus allow access  by sonnet or author, its DVD players wouldn’t then allow the rest to play out in sequence from any single point. This means either watching the disc in a single viewing (you'll be tempted) or being prepared to juggle menus after each reading. After contacting the production company, I learned that I had been sent a very early copy of the DVD, and that this fault has now been corrected. They sent me a corrected version (no charge, thank you!) and indeed you can now watch in sequence from any point - a joy for this beautifully presented collection.

Both the glossy booklet with the DVD, and a message on the disc itself direct viewers to an “app” that promises enhanced features like notes from the Arden Shakespeare, a facsimile of the original publication, and a commentary by Don Paterson. While no doubt fascinating, this DVD in itself will satisfy many fans - and win others - of these amazing lines.
__________________________________________________


"Mark Evans: The Journey Home"
A CD. Catalogue number B0083PP1RQ
Available from Amazon.co.uk

At just 26, Mark Evans has a thriving musical theatre career (plus a brush with the Eurovision Song Contest UK heats) already to his credit. Condensing that down to 14 tracks for his first album is quite a task, one he manages with some aplomb.
A low-key start “Comin’ Home” is repeated later as a bonus track in its original Welsh. The Welsh original makes a strong case for that language being the most musical in the world.

Following the English version of “Comin’ Home,” “Unchained Melody” unites Mark with 2012 “Ghost” co-star Siobhan Dillon in a duet that records their on-stage chemistry for posterity. Voices often match and blend in duets, but few are like dancers, following and soaring together as here.

“Reach the Sky,” a Bobby Cronin number, builds slowly before suddenly revealing a bright optimism. Continuing the upbeat theme, “Brand New You” from Jason Robert Brown musical “13” is given an adult interpretation, turning a duet intended for two teenagers into, first, a rather seductive production number and (as a later ‘bonus track’) an acoustic guitar driven reflective piece. The former is the more successful, as it brings a new dimension to the song; though the second is a fun experiment.

Broadway composer Craig Carnelia’s “Flight” may not be well known outside the theatre community, but Evans may rectify that by finding an ethereal quality to the music - making the listener wish to explore the composer’s other works.

By contrast, “Alive” is a rock duet with Ashleigh Gray. A welcome change of tempo mid-disc, the fun they are having is infectious and the sound mix perfect.

The spooky “In Her Eyes” is another well-judged move, allowing the singer to do something with an equally strong beat but slower rhythm, proving his vocal range.

Slowing further “Until Then” is a gentle exposure to composer Scott Allan. A sleepy rendition belies a song with strong inner emotions.

A Josh Groban song, “To Where You Are” appeared on Groban’s debut album in 2001, and is a sound choice for this debut album too. Given a simple rendition, it’s a vocal pitched perfectly for the listener’s relaxation.

Singing his own lyric, “Keep On Believing” is an anthem to a performer’s work, something to aspire to in the audition line. It’s also an indicator that Mark Evans has some writing talent to match his theatrical abilities.

The main album finishes on “The Journey Home.” (from musical ‘Bombay Dreams’). Once more, a flavour of Wales influences the delivery as much as the song’s Indian origins. Straightforward and lovely, it’s the perfect way to finish the album; the haunting delivery of the lines “The Journey Home” make for a memorable exit.

With a final mention to the third bonus track, “Adre’N Ol” for another reminder that Wales manufactures some of Great Britain’s finest music, it’s safe to say that Mark Evans is another fine export, and that this album will delight current fans and win him some new ones.
_______________________________________________


"Being Shakespeare"

(region 2 DVD)

A copy of this DVD should be placed alongside the Gideon Bible in every hotel room within ten miles of Stratford Upon Avon. For this inspired collaboration by actor Simon Callow and Shakespeare expert Jonathan Bate will instantly and entertainingly provide every ounce of background information any visitor could require; greatly enhancing their visit with wonderful insights into the subject's world.

A cardboard crown, a wooden sword, a globe, four wooden school chairs and a square of light are all Simon Callow needs to weave ninety minutes of theatrical magic.

This is the story of William Shakespeare. Lines from thirty two of his most famous characters illustrate their creator's emotions as we progress through his `seven ages' of life (itself a concept in his "As You Like It").

Alongside the play extracts, own modern everyday language (peppered with topical references - one to a `property portfolio' causing particular amusement among the on screen audience) keep the production accessible and the whole moving at smart pace.

It's always a pleasure to hear Shakespeare spoken by the very best actors, but here the particular joy is having those beautiful words set in context against each period of the author's life.

The highest highlights of the enthralling ninety minutes are an hilarious `school room' sequence as the young Snail learns to play with Latin words and a one-man `balcony scene' as he learns to play with girls... Both are performed with the gentlest touch, and a command of the stage that rather make you glad this is a DVD - so that you can rewind and savour the scenes again and again.

This whole is filmed "as live," with the audience reaction and even a few vocal hesitations left in. If there is a single flaw, it is that the `interval' is not defined sufficient to make the sublime `re-entry' line sing for the home viewer quite as amusingly as it could. The fact that this single flaw is noticeable can be taken, of course, as an indicator of just what a singularly outstanding release this disc is.

Twenty minutes of extras - a short but fascinating insight into the creative process of this piece, plus three sonnets performed by Callow prolong the enjoyment.

The monkey can only end by saying that this is the perfect souvenir for those who have seen the play `live,' a `must have' purchase for any theatre lover and the perfect introduction to England's most famous writer for absolutely everybody.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk or www.illuminationsmedia.co.uk.
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Macbeth [DVD] Click Here to buy at Amazon.co.uk

This is truly the Scottish play. Filmed mostly in Scotland, with Scottish accents throughout, there’s no doubt at all that this is a rare opportunity to see “Macbeth” in all its local atmospheric glory.

And it does look glorious. Panoramas of desolate moorland, grey and cold, moving to oranges and reds as the heat rises and flames consume all. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography captures it all, and the interior sets, particularly Fiona Crombie’s castle and church are impressive, particularly populated with Jacqueline Durran’s costume designs.

Michael Fassbender in the title role, and Marion Cotillard as his wife make a convincing couple. His gruffness with her French vulnerability and determination are perfect casting. The rawness of their plotting – always a physical encounter – gives an unusual edge, while the soliloquies are always delivered with an intimacy rarely captured on film. In this, Cotillard admits being assisted by Justin Kurzel’s directorial choices, including giving her a child to play to at one crucial point.

There’s an impressive David Thewlis as Duncan, while Sean Harris finds in Macduff a vengeful grief which manages not to overwhelm but give motivation to his later actions.

The only irritant is in the script adaptation. Famous lines go missing, and there are gaps in explaining a few actions. With the actors able to deliver lines to this standard, it can be distracting to find the “heath” replaced by “battlefield” and a dagger not “seen still.”

Full marks to the score, though, with a composition for the children something of a highlight other stage directors may wish to consider.

A few strong scenes aside (this version does not spare gore nor sex), it is certainly better than most film versions of the play as an introduction to it. Several scenes may well capture, particularly in Scotland, the minds of those studying the work for higher school examinations.

For the average Shakespeare fan, there are distinct moments of “yes, that’s how I imagined it to be,” and several of “they got the right actor, there” too.

A very decent introduction to the Bard, and well worth watching – not just for the experts. __________________________________________________


"The Music Box"
A CD. Catalogue number ESC0005
Available from Amazon.co.uk

This album, with an unusual tinkling “Music Box” overture, offers extracts from both Gareth Peter Dicks musicals and stand alone works. 

First up is “The Seasons Turn” from his musical “Escape.” A quartet that the author claims “works out of context,” the monkey felt that if orchestrated with a ‘pop’ sound, he’d be right. As it stands, the singers wring the very most from the opening line and its yearning theme. Later, two further songs from this show, solos by Katie Rowley Jones and Sarah Earnshaw underline that this is the musical Dicks should devote more attention to. A little tuning, of the type that happens naturally in rehearsal rooms, could produce a very exciting stage work.

From “A Million Grains of Sand,” another of his musicals, “Please Don’t Go” is probably how preceding track “Who Have I Become?” would work once tidied for the stage. Focussed both in lyric and performance, it captivated the monkey – as does later paired track “Without Him / We Are Here” also taken from the second act of that show.

Still on a stage theme, combining Shakespearian words with music is always a brave experiment, and Laura Pitt-Pulford’s “What Case I?” is interesting. “Crimson Droplets” - from yet another attempt to musicalise the “Jack The Ripper” story – though, is very much a “work in progress” (as the writer attests). Theatre star Rebecca Lock lives up to her billing, dealing effectively with a difficult vocal. As a show number, though, it will no doubt be revised before staging to remove a tendency to ‘sing what the audience can already see’ and sharpen the original purpose of providing an interior monologue moment.
Proving an aptitude for single numbers, “When Will I know Your Name?” is the most instantly arresting on the disc.

Everybody has wondered about a person they’ve seen on the train and admired from afar. Gareth Peter Dicks manages to put that universal thought into perfectly set words and music – and singer Liam Tamne expresses them well enough to use as a real chat-up line, perhaps.

“More” is a change of pace. Inspired by “You Tube” music videos, it’s a correctly placed contrast to the preceding ballads. Those seeking a simple break will enjoy it, others may skip the track for later, more sophisticated fare.

Among those, the author’s “Muse” tribute “No Turning Back” proves that he can write a bass heavy number as well as anyone, while (maybe over-complex) ‘country’ number “Simple Words” indicates further versatility.

Second Liam on this disc, Liam Doyle, also delivers an incredibly dark “Run With Me.” Intended to stand alone, this very theatrical sounding track might oddly work in a musical about “Jack The Ripper.”

Taking the bloodletting theme a little further, instrumental “The Long Journey Home” (from which the author removed the word, rightly assuming the music speaks for itself) has a little of Sondheim’s “Joanna” from “Sweeney Todd” theme in its violin; no bad thing, perhaps, in a lyrical piece about age and remembering.

Contrasting with such darkness, “Live In Dreams” was, according to the sleeve notes, written with singer Richard Dempsey in mind. It’s easy to see why, as a song about light and escape is given the power it needs - with “Les Mis”-like strings attached.

As the album closes, a charmingly balletic instrumental harking back to the “Music Box” overture, precedes a remix of musical “Bluebird’s” “Goodnight Dear Soldiers.” Abi Finley’s already moving vocal is given extra depth with a string section added, while Finley herself stakes further claim to being potential ‘musical theatre leading lady’ material.
Stick around after this for a further small treat, too.

As an concept, the author proposes that a Music Box can be a special object linking generations and stories. As this CD proves, it’s also be a highly appropriate title for a disc reviewing an already varied and successful composing career.
__________________________________________________


"The Sound Of Rogers & Hammerstein"
A CD. Catalogue number SPECKCD006
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Like most of the UK public, the monkey first noticed Helena Blackman when she came second in the very first cast-a-show-by-TV programme, “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?” Since then, her outstanding talent has lead to a range of roles in great musicals by composers including Hammerstein and Sondheim. Now, some of her favourites by the former (her personal inspiration) are captured on this intriguing debut album.

The best numbers are those in which her very obvious ability as a musical character actor shines. Early in the CD, her Nellie Forbush should have a word with her Julie Jordan. ‘Washing that Man Right Outta My Hair” is probably the perfect antidote to the wonderfully forlorn and resigned New England dreamer’s ”What’s The Use of Wondrin’” thoughts. Positioning these two tracks early on and together is a clever move, highlighting the dramatic range of Helena Blackman’s voice.

“It Might As Well Be Spring,” confirms Ms Blackman’s character creating abilities. Her take on this lesser known “State Fair” number feels fresh and unique, leading well into the middle section of the recording.

A rather relaxed “If I Loved You” blends into “Something Wonderful,” – a spine-tingling rendition straight from the heart. It’s also the better of her two “King and I” selections. “I Have Dreamed” (duet with Jonathan Ansell) seems a little too quick, without the same time to develop a rapport that she gets later with Daniel Boys (another “TV casting” find) in “People Will Say We’re in Love.” This time, we know exactly who call the shots in her relationships…tread carefully, gentlemen.

Between these two, “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Love Look Away” (like the earlier “If I Loved You” and “I Have Confidence”) seem more ‘cabaret’ in rendition. Not a criticism; it’s just noticeable that ‘Helena sounding relaxed’ just isn’t the same as ‘Helena animating a character.’ Rather suggesting scope for a separate solo Lounge career beside her show one, really.

“The Gentleman Is A Dope” seemingly confirms this theory, being a song that she addresses in both forms – with strong character driven comedy, and adding a definite ‘penultimate number in a solo show’ feel to leave the crowd looking forward to the encore.

This is provided by the curious choice of “Climb Every Mountain” as a finale. It’s done well enough, but it is a song sung by a very ‘mature’ nun. Sensibly, Ms Blackman is obviously lining up work for a few decades ahead when ‘The Sound Of Music’ is revived and she can take the role – to perfection, undoubtedly.

Before that day, though, Helena Blackman does (as she should do), “Enjoy Being a Girl” here, as much as sharing with us her enjoyment of being a musical theatre performer. As her experience broadens, and before deciding she is ready for the wimple and habit, there are obviously some wonderful years ahead. The monkey hopes it may also result, too, in another album as interesting as this one.
______________________________________________


"John Owen-Jones: Unmasked"
A CD. Catalogue number SCD2658
Available from Amazon.co.uk

What better way to celebrate the start of a prestigious tour playing “The Phantom Of The Opera” nationwide (not to mention two concerts of your own), than to release your second solo album?

For a well known musical theatre star, some song choices seem compulsory. Still, this “Music Of The Night,” threatens to eclipse the Michael Crawford original. Even braver, following it with “Til I Hear You Sing” from sequel “Love Never Dies” makes the listener wonder at what he would have brought to that role too. The answer may be found in an “All I Ask Of You” that clearly bewitches his Christine, Natasha Marsh.

Still with musical theatre staples, “Being Alive” moves from slightly stretched into a surprisingly effective begging treatment, while “Somewhere” sparkles both vocally and orchestrally, as a young man sets out his vision to moving effect. Often overdone “This Is The Moment” doesn’t dwell on that key-change as lesser versions do - even if this reviewer still finds its continued popularity inexplicable. More successful, bonus track “Bring Him Home” refreshes the singer’s claim on another leading role.

Demonstrating more imagination, there’s a brace of numbers from lesser known shows. First, a highly successful collaboration with Bryn Terfel on “I Don’t Remember You / Sometimes A Day Goes By” from revue “As The World Goes Round.” A thrilling exploration of love in a surprising duet. Then follows “Down To The Sea” - an interesting introduction to “Kristina,” suggesting a musical worth discovering.

Away from the theatrical, other choices on the CD are as unexpected as the small gift after track 14. First is 1947 Eden Ahbez creation “Nature Boy,” which feels as dreamlike as any musical theatre piece. A surprisingly relaxed opening number, it’s craftily positioned before a macho rendition of “Thunderball.” Owen-Jones finds the ‘story’ in this song, while the Welsh Session Orchestra (who accompany him throughout the album) produce a smart “Bond” sound for him.

Later, the Ham / Evans number “Without You” proves that musical theatre doesn’t have a monopoly on setting loss to song, but that a musical theatre performer can find an extra dimension. This applies equally to closings tracks “Love Of My Life” and bonus number “Hallelujah.” The first bookends perfectly the opening track with another, slightly less laid-back, wishful performance; the second revitalises a much covered song with a contemplative interpretation.

It’s sadly rare in musical theatre for those who ‘take over’ a role created by another performer to have their ideas recorded. Rarer still is a musical theatre artist who can bring those skills to other genres. John Owen Jones achieves both here, and his new disc should delight old fans and win new ones.
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“Here Comes The Sun”

Louise Dearman
A CD. Big Hand Records. 5026107062074
Available from Amazon.co.uk
From the 5 Track Sampler, provided by PR Company.

Probably best known for her spell as “Glinda” in the London production of “Wicked,” Louise Dearman has an equal passion for belting out dramatic pop numbers. Her first solo album, “Here Comes The Sun” collects some of her favourites, and ahead of the album’s release on 7th May 2012 her PR company shared 5 of the 10 tracks with the monkey.

First up is the title number from the album. One of George Harrison’s best Beatles numbers, Louise gives it a slow-burning start, carefully controlling the emotion until, as the “ice is slowly melting,” the heat of her feelings become clear.

A Skin / Skunk Anansie song, “Sqaunder” follows. In sharp contrast to the awakenings of “Here Comes The Sun,” this is about the end of a relationship. Caught between anger and reproach, the skills of a musical theatre performer turn introspective rage into vivid conversation.

More theatrical experience is demonstrated by both Louise Dearman and duet partner Steve Balsamo as they create a vocal ballet from Cyndi Lauper’s ever-poetic “Time After Time.” A girl moving to the rhythm of memories is joined at the bridge by a beautifully judged male voice, lending something new – the immediacy of hope, perhaps – to her thoughts, building to a satisfyingly tender finish.

“Gravity” follows, and couldn’t be further from the previous track. The constant wish to be allowed to stand alone, given highly expressive statement in a single controlled-anguish phrasing of ‘Bringing Me Down,’ is a struggle for freedom given dramatic form.

Rounding up the sampler is “Little Bird.” Annie Lennox’s music seems to particularly suit Louise. Keeping it lively throughout, there’s a touch of “Pentecostal Choir” in her wish for wings. The confusion between a need for guidance and defiance drives this final number and, since we don’t really know which will win, it’s a suitable exit for a performer who knows how to make an impact when leaving the stage.

These well-chosen tracks explore the complex realities of love through complex lyrics, illuminated with great effect by an impressive performer on her debut album.
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"Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop Of The Season. 1959 to 2009"

By Peter Filichia.
Applause Books. £17.99. ISBN: 9781423495628
Available from Amazon.co.uk

If Ken Mandelbaum can be said to have written the "Old Testament" of Broadway Flop musical books with "Not Since Carrie", then Peter Filichia's "Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop Of The Season" could be regarded as the "New." The former work begins at 1950, taking a general sweep through 40 years of Broadway history. Filichia takes 1959 as his starting point, and narrows his focus to just the single best and worst of the season. Using (and occasionally breaking) his own introductory `rules of engagement' his aim is as much to interpret events as provide an historical record, making this new gospel a joy.

It is always a pleasure to be in the company of an expert who loves his subject. Better still, his is a gossipy and highly readable style. With few exceptions, it's clear that he has spent hours zinging through the year's offerings to alighting on one particular show for praise or derision.

Other reviewers have noted occasional inaccuracies in the book which, as the monkey knows from experience, is almost unavoidable - even the best writers and editors mislay material and miss details. His 1986 page asserts "Merlin" as the flop of 1983, though he earlier declared "Dance A Little Closer" as the failure of that year; and it seems lazy not bend the rules once more to find a hit for 88/89. Luckily, such minor slips never detract from the overall quality.

Most impressive is the standard of debate the author is willing to indulge in. For example, despite the record books asserting "Carrie" as Broadway's biggest disaster (and, just for the record, it played Stratford Upon Avon, not London, before Broadway), Filichia makes a convincing case for "Chess" to take the crown for that year. He's also not above iconoclasm with the debunking of the "The Producers" myth as the greatest musical comedy of all time. Like millions of others, the monkey too loved the show passionately on first viewing... but later realised it was a true `one off' vehicle dependent on star power.

Decently presented using quality paper, amusing photographs of the author's own used ticket stubs divide the chapters (try spotting one he paid for rather than had free - the monkey couldn't!). As both reference work and entertainment, this is a `must buy' for anybody with an interest in musical theatre.
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"Michael Bruce: Unwritten Songs"
A CD. Catalogue number SPECKCD007
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Speckulation Entertainment has in recent years built an enviable reputation for attracting and promoting unusually innovative young talent. This disc represents a peak in that ideal. Not only does it feature some of their usual ‘repertory company’ of accomplished West End talent, but the composer was discovered by them via a 2007 national Musical Theatre writing competition.

Michael Bruce’s work has already been heard in concert form on the London stage, and will next (at the time of writing) appear accompanying David Tennant and Catherine Tate in “Much Ado About Nothing” at Wyndham’s Theatre in Summer 2011. Before that, this CD takes an entertaining sweep through his varied song styles. “Don’t Wanna Leave You Now” opens the recording with a surprisingly downbeat first verse leading to an unexpected haunting middle section. “Even Then,” with a heartfelt vocal by Paul Spicer then continues the established yearning theme.

Track 3, “I Want A Man” had the monkey reaching for the listings to check whose smooth sweet voice started the song. Sarah Lark kicks off a vaudeville style duet in fine style, amusing us as she and Sarah Earnshaw share a quest for the ideal partner. More yearning, but with a witty upbeat lyric.

The tempo slows again for Charlotte Wakefield’s stage ballad style “Someplace Beyond the Moon.” Who knows what went on in the show before she sings it – but she’ll no doubt have the ushers selling out of Kleenex before she’s done.

Mark Evans follows with a bluesy ‘click along’ “Money Honey” – moving from theatre stage to smoky American bar setting in the listener’s mind. Masculine enough for the ladies of track 3, perhaps? Well placed directly afterwards, Emily Tierney’s ‘Continental’ carries the smoky atmosphere a few thousand miles East of the previous track. Another obviously ‘stage’ number, this would fit well into any evening seeking an alternative to the classic Kander and Ebb ‘Cabaret’ numbers. Completing the mid-list travelling trio, ‘Away’ is a forceful desire for emotional release, given power treatment by Alex Jessop.

Jessie Buckley then calms things with a perfectly controlled ‘It’s Not Gonna Rain.’ Obviously learning from her time in Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in 2009, she picks her way beautifully through a fragile construct, revealing hidden depths in each line. Still in Sondheim mode, “The Musical Theatre Song” is Bruce’s tribute to “Not Getting Married” from “Company.” Anna-Jane Casey turns in her usual ‘character’ comedy performance to get the most from a well thought out ‘list’ number. Ashleigh Gray then changes the disc’s gear yet again with “My Kind of World.” Sondheim style to begin with, mixing with something contemporary to create a fresh yet timeless ballad.

Following this is “Portrait Of A Princess.”  No Speckulation Entertainment CD is complete without insanely talented (or talentedly insane?) Julie Atherton providing a lunatic treatment of a mad fun number.. Even better, this superb, intelligent parody has,  for those with online access (and who don’t mind the odd expletive), a glorious Technicolor Disney (but NOT for kids) video accompaniment at www.portraitofaprincess.com. You may never look at Snow White in the same way again…

‘Looking Back’ is another Speckulation Entertainment hallmark – the ‘Daniel Boys and lucky female theatre star’ duet. This time, Michael Bruce provides him and Alexia Khadime with a relationship dissection, reaching a wistful, quietly understated conclusion. 

It is left to Michael Xavier to close the CD with another soft ballad, the titular “Unwritten Song.” Unusually placed after another introspective number, the reason becomes obvious as it draws together the album’s theme of exploring love’s dimensions. The perfect end to a compelling showcase of an exceptionally talented composer’s work, given full value by an equally talented team of artists and producers. 
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"Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be: The Lionel Bart Story"

By David Stafford and Caroline Stafford.
Omnibus Press £19.95 ISBN-10: 1849386617 or 978-1849386616
Available from Amazon.co.uk

"Who can say where he may hide?" To paraphrase a lyric from his most famous musical. Apt, because the authors have to admit on practically every page that a story may or may not have happened, that many pieces of this troubled and splintered life are missing – presumed written only on cigarette packets – and that the only thing anybody really agrees on was that they loved this difficult ‘creative genius.’

Most readers will instantly know that Lionel Bart wrote “Oliver!” Those of a certain age will be able to hum the cleaned up version of “Fing’s Ain’t What They Used To Be” – and might even know that it came from one of the most revolutionary experimental theatre productions of its era. Some may also remember the old pianist with the toothless kiddie in an “Abbey National” commercial. A few musical theatre fans will also speak of “Blitz!” “Maggie May” and “Lock Up Your Daughters” with affection, simultaneously shuddering at “Twang!!”

The ‘pub quiz’ bore will know all about Bart’s connections to Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard among a host of other 1960s stars. It’s really in the collation of these connections that this biography scores. Alma Cogan, Judy Garland, Kenneth Williams – just a few of the myriad names who drifted into and out of Lionel’s circle, supported by him and lending him support in return.

The biography does a reasonable job of recording the occurrence of an interaction, noting where possible those for whom he wrote songs, gave advice or simply ‘walked’ into a glittering premiere. Of his non-celebrity friends, staff and family, there’s clearly been some long conversations sifted to provide a few insights into how a man can be a millionaire one moment, at the height of his creative powers, then lose everything including health and home in a few short years.

‘Fing is… there’s little beyond anecdotal evidence left. A fairly short book is padded with ‘scene setting’ period descriptions and the odd half-decent unconnected one-liner, because there simply isn’t much else recorded as fact. Unlike most biographies which can verify stories of meetings and commentate on their significance to weave an integrated career tapestry, here the threads are tangled; and most surround holes that a lack of records and departed characters cannot fill.

Consequently, this is a slightly shaky chronology of highs and lows, with stories held together by the factual evidence of his public recordings legacy. Readable, despite padding and spelling errors, Bart emerges as more than just the “pity case” beloved of tabloids on a ‘slow news day.’ We now have a reference work that should prove helpful to anybody researching the period, it’s music and greatest characters.
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“Putting It On: The West End Theatre of Michael Codron”

By Michael Codron and Alan Strachan.
Duckworth Overlook. £25. ISBN: 978-1590204832
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Alan Strachan is a WRITER. The monkey uses the capital letters deliberately, for it suspects that few other authors could shape over 50 years and 200 productions into readable form. It helps, of course, that Strachan has directed for Codron on a number of occasions, and thus has an extra affinity (and source of anecdotes as well as primary evidence) for his subject.

The monkey's own formative years of West End theatregoing certainly coincided with Codron’s heyday, and a major attraction of this book is recognising productions it has seen then learning a little more about how they came to be produced. Thanks to an extensive – and almost complete – archive, Strachan is able to trace the career of an extraordinary impresario through good times and harder ones in the Capital.

The way the author chooses to structure the task is both the book’s greatest asset, and chief weakness. Once the Codron schooldays have been dispensed with, he adopts a decidedly ‘thematic’ approach – taking either an association with a single playwright or genre (‘revue’ is the most interesting, and the form the monkey for one miss most in London today) as the subject of a chapter. This saves the whole from becoming just another tiresome chronology, and gives the author flexibility in tracing the development of an association in a single section of the book rather than in small paragraphs across a hundred pages.

Anything outside this structure does have to be ‘worked in’ a little less smoothly than a reader might like, though it can be a relief to turn away from a minute examination of one author for a moment to interpolate a little of another’s success for contrast and colour.
The main drawback, however, is that the reader suddenly finds himself plunged back to failure in 1956 directly after celebrating a hit 2005 production at the close of the previous chapter. It makes for a slightly disconcerting change in pace at times, though compared to the alternative it is rather a sound editorial decision.

It could also be mentioned that one minor editorial error gets the dates wrong for a whole sequence of Ayckbourn / Vaudeville Theatre productions and Codron’s associated ownership of the venue but, as a writer myself, the monkey knows that such things are unavoidable and it might be seen as a simple case of Ayckbourn ‘confusions’ enlivening the text a little.

This book succeeds both as a reference source for those fascinated by West End production history, and as an `aide memoire' to the keen theatregoer. Certainly one that both will wish to have on their shelves; either to dip into in order to refresh a memory or simply pass a pleasurable few moments.
______________________________________________


"Evening Primrose"

(region 1 DVD - UK readers may require a multi-regional DVD player and TV set to view)

...of 1966 American television. A time when quality mattered as much as ratings, and a brave experiment like a season of one hour dramas was possible.

The broadcast colour version is still missing, so this DVD is taken from a newly discovered black and white archive copy. It's watchable, but don't expect crystal clarity in either sound or vision. The sound faults were inherent in production, the visuals simply down to the age and quality of the recording. In the `extras' with the disc, the production team also admit to mistakes made in the original filming thanks to being forced to rush its completion. You'll have fun spotting them once they are pointed out, and they in no way detract from your enjoyment.

For enjoyable this wonderful disc is. Every Sondheim fan will experience the same tingle that monkey did, seeing two fabulous and familiar songs `in context' for the first time. This is even more special, of course, because it is an event few of us thought we'd ever see. Until now that pleasure was restricted to those lucky enough to visit the New York library where the only known copy was held, be invited to a private academic screening, or maybe a `hush-hush' one of a fuzzy bootleg copy.

It is easy to see why this garnered such critical reviews following the one and only screening on 16th November 1966; even the most forgiving reviewer will notice gaping holes in the plot. What, for example, do the store dwellers at the centre of the tale do during the day? They are active all night, taking pains to avoid the (obviously short sighted and goldfish-minded) security guard by `dummying up' as he passes. So during the day, where do they sleep in a store full of people? They can't `dummy up' then too, can they? Oh, and how come the store never notices missing food or other items? Just two of the inconsistencies that may bewilder viewers.

No matter. Anthony Perkins makes the most of even the roughest lines and situations dealt to him. His singing voice is a surprise, lifting from song-speak to very creditable as required. Co-star, and object of his on-screen affections (though not, apparently, off-screen ones) Charmian Carr dazzles vocally and visually. Luckily, the director's instincts were strongest in her scenes, and every nuance of this fine performance is captured. The rest of the cast, comprising many well known elders like Larry Gates and Dorothy Stickney will also provide an education for younger viewers in how melodrama can be played credibly. If that doesn't convince, the rest of the musical score (enhanced at one point by David Shire, who knew?) is alone the breathtaking reason to purchase.

A well produced history booklet, plus two interviews and some silent test film footage (neat comedy with a shirt included) rounds out a must have for anybody who is a fan of Sondheim, Perkins or Carr - or just wonders what happens in a department store at night...

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
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"Departure Lounge"

A CD. Catalogue number SPECKCD005
Available from Amazon.co.uk

A riotous Malmo Airport encounter with some teenage Swedish boys triggered teen-holiday memories for Composer Dougal Irvine. Accepting how selective these could be, he decided to create a musical - scored for two guitars – around them.

Four British lads are delayed in Malaga Airport’s departure lounge, trying to remember their past week’s activities. Strong language and graphic images are present from the start, as an incongruous close harmony (decent voices all) of a single insult becomes an introduction to the group and sets the scene.

Bravado, “We’d like to s*ag your daughter, that’s what your daughter’s for,” is mixed with the reflective, “We’ve been a group for ever, now we must go alone,” marking the end of an era.

“Brand New” then introduces Verity Rushworth as Sophie, siren of the boys’ week. Advertising her availability, the following track, “Sophie” captures an inexperienced male’s reaction to her dubious charms with a decent erudition of awe and shyness that ultimately ends in mourning a loss.

Group member Jordan hints at the reason, knowing it could destroy the group, but frustratingly doesn’t divulge it on the disc. This isn’t as irritating as the boys attempts to remember “Thursday Night,” though – particularly their behaviour. A lively number to make you cringe, and thankfully lacking in detail.

As the disc progresses the stronger emotional explorations emerge. “Do You Know What I Think Of You” captures brilliantly that moment when one boy outgrows a friendship with another. In similar vein “Picture Book” explores another aspect of loss – childhood and family security.

Providing contrast, “Why Do We Say Gay?” parodies various song styles (Country being the best), to dissect wittily (and explicitly) the world of male one-upmanship and bonding.

With a pause to reflect on what tourism has done (or not) for Spain - the theory proposed being that by defending them, the Brits won the right to er, basically trash their entire culture – the boys leave for home.

“Left Spain,” their closing number, reflects on the changes the boys have experienced in the past week, and focuses attention on the greater changes to come in adulthood. A bonus track, “We Rule The World” is a hymn to this, a bit in the “Hair” style. The sleeve notes don’t indicate if this was a deleted number, and it doesn’t really fit in the rest of the show, but it provides a fine finish to the recording.

Capturing the young male voice is rare, and this musical demonstrates just how difficult it is. Dougal Irvine makes a very listenable attempt, certainly scoring with several of the more introspective numbers. It also left this listener grateful that it was Dougal Irvine and not Andrew Lloyd Webber who was stranded in Malmo Airport that night. Otherwise, who knows, we probably would have ended up with “Luton Never Dies…”
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"Imagine This"

Region 0 DVD
Buy from Amazon.co.uk

London, November 2008. In the depths of recession, a new musical opened and quickly closed. Despite a short run, the American Public Broadcasting Service filmed it for both US TV broadcast and worldwide DVD release. Without an internationally famous star, and given the show’s difficult five year genesis and even a title-change – any reviewer is entitled to ask, “Why did they bother?”

Answer: PBS recorded a unique experience. It not only deserves viewers’ time now; but also attention from musical theatre talents capable of building on what producer Beth Trachtenberg and her team managed to achieve.

A Warsaw summer’s carefree carousel party is confined by November 1940 to the city’s Ghetto – the Nazi’s “living prison” for its Jewish population. Two years on, Daniel’s theatre company are making the best of it. Meagre physical resources are eked out by bottomless reserves of courage to produce life-saving distraction from their situation.

The decision to stage a play based on the tale of Masada, aligning their own suffering with that of the Jewish population in 66AD, provides a structure for two stories to play out in parallel – both to deeply affecting conclusions.

A polished production, staged with considerable care; sees German-baiting Daniel brought alive by Peter Polycarpou, in arguably the finest performance of his career. Leila Benn Harris as daughter Rebecca, Cameron Leigh as Lola and Simon Gleeson as Adam provide able support in a notably strong ensemble - from whom director Timothy Sheader extracts maximum value.

So what went wrong? Musicals are notoriously difficult to get right, often going through many ‘workshops’ and out-of-town tryouts to resolve structural issues. In this case, I’d suggest the flaw is in the balance between the ancient and modern tales.

The modern storyline is sound. Every sequence involving the plucky Jewish theatre company provides an emotional impact rarely felt in any musical theatre production. Odd clumsy lines, and perhaps a thin sub-plot too many, aside; these scenes are an immediate reason to purchase this disc.

What the team fails to resolve, despite valiant efforts, is the integration of the ancient “Masada” parts. Rather than weaving vignettes derived from the main action into the tale, they opt for long sequences of “show within a show.” Despite a rather lovely title melody and one well-judged comedy song, these mostly dissipate the carefully constructed despair of 1943, rather than enhancing its dramatic impact.

This recording should provide much hope for the future of the show. Constant re-watching should allow the creative team to find the emotional focus they’re already close to discovering, and suggest a new staging. Meanwhile, ordinary theatregoers have an opportunity to enjoy a stirring lesson in faith and courage, and also share this reassuring proof of the human spirit’s ability to meet even the greatest adversity.
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"The London Palladium. The Story of the Theatre and its Stars"

By Chris Woodward.
Northern Heritage Publishing. £35. ISBN: 9-781-906600-39-6
Available from Amazon.co.uk

What do you do when offered a wonderful collection of theatre programmes, including many from the most famous of them all – the London Palladium?

Chris Woodward’s answer is to try telling the venue’s story, starting with the development of Argyll Street in the early 1730s. He moves swiftly then through the Hengler’s Circus days to the opening of the current building on Boxing Day 1910. Here Woodward arrives at the heart of his tale – those who appeared at, or managed the venue over the next century.

The thick, glossily lavish pages teem with posters recalling the stars, and the surrounding text spell out their famous names and achievements. Wonderful accounts of historic entertainers like the “Crazy Gang” and “Sunday Night At the London Palladium” team are recorded; and we are also introduced to famous staff from George Black to Bernard Delfont, and producers including Harold Fielding.

There’s no easy way to present such detailed annual lists of performers and achievements. In these chapters the author does his best to break the flow up a little with the odd historical snippet, but it can get a little repetitive after a while when reading this book from cover to cover. Almost every year and performance is followed by the sentiment, “It was a memorable one” (complete with exclamation mark); and readers won’t be surprised to learn that the author writes the historical notes found in Palladium programmes - the style is comparable.

The book’s only omission is the architecture itself. There are no auditorium photographs (probably because West End theatres are sensitive about such material being published), nor text acknowledging how the auditorium and building changed over time. Also notable is the author’s own forgetfulness when criticising the advent of “musicals cast by reality television.” The Palladium has always set public trends and tastes, and by presenting the first experiment with the genre (“The Sound of Music” in 2006), it actually just adds another page to its legendary reputation in the vanguard of the business.

Since it is so expensive, this book will probably be of most interest to those who maintain libraries of London theatre reference works because those (like the monkey) require a level of detail unavailable online. It’s also very much a gift for older readers who will wallow in the bygone nostalgia of golden names. As a simple record of those who made it great, this book is probably definitive – and for that alone it is worth dipping into.
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"Julie Atherton: No Space For Air"
A CD. Catalogue number SPECKCD004
Available from Amazon.co.uk

From these eleven carefully selected tracks, it seems that “No Space For Air” alludes to the closeness and sometimes claustrophobia of passionate relationships. Opening number “Weak” contains the line ‘deep as I am’ - a perfectly summary of the emotional explorations which follow.

Doing what theatrically famous Julie Atherton does best, particular highlights are “Lost In Translations” from the concept musical ‘Lift’ and “Losing My Mind” from Sondheim's ‘Follies.’

“Lost In Translation” contains one expletive, but is a wonderful tale of a dare that went wrong, delivered with the kind of skill only a top West End artist can manage. Every ounce of comedy and deep yearning are delivered against a beautifully mixed backing.

Any selection from ‘Follies’ is usually a cliché. Atherton and her arranger neatly avoid the problem with a surprise arrangement. To say more would spoil the joy of its discovery, but suffice to say it alone is worth the price of the disc for many fans of both singer and songwriter.

Further into the album “Crawling” explores, with variations in accompaniment and tempo, insecurity. This contrasts perfectly with the dominating “Leather,” employing strong imagery and matching vocals to consider the complex dynamics of control and passion. “Broken Wings” manages a similar level of emotion, with less obvious pain and greater introspection.

“Never Saw Blue Like That” and “Silent Whispers” cool things a little. The first, slower, number uses the colour in Atherton’s voice to evoke images of a sunlit coastal villa. The second celebrates quiet togetherness with a delightfully warm tone from the singer. Placing “Anywhere But Here” directly after this provides a thoughtful balance in the disc’s running order, a reflective interlude before rounding it off with “Encore” - offering some optimism and a plan for future happiness.

The monkey's first reaction to this album release was, “Julie Atherton? The lady who sings the wonderfully crazy song on the ‘Christmas In New York’ Album, right?” Actually, it abbreviated the description to two words… This disc proves to be worth many more, most of them superlatives.
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"Peter Pan"
A CD. Catalogue number SPECKCD002
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Very occasionally a cast CD makes the monkey wish it had seen the actual production. This is one of those rare occasions.

Peter Pan is all too often written off as a children’s treat, or worse given a smug, “edgy” adaptation to disassociate it from its roots. The Birmingham Repertory / West Yorkshire Playhouse production by Stiles, Drewe and Hall nimbly avoids these pitfalls to produce a book musical of the perfect depth of intelligence and clarity.

Bright lyrics and some inventive music hang well from a strongly constructed tale. From the rousing opening number on, it is clear that these composers have the experience and inventiveness to provide a fresh and unique angle on the story. The recurrent “Just Beyond The Stars” is a song Streisand could do damage with, while Wendy’s logic that Pan can’t remain a chid because he will “grow too tall” is a single example of the thought that has gone into the characterisations and narrative drive of the show.

For every character and group is perfectly drawn. Peter himself is perfectly defined by the “Cleverness Of Me.” The Lost Boys gang in full bravado are just short of an ASBO, while the pirates are the funniest bunch of evil cutthroats since Sweeney Todd. Captain Hook may get all “Les Misérables” for a moment, but the beautifully timed act 2 opener “Look Back Through A Rose Tinted Eyepatch,” and later “A Pirate With A Conscience” (with Shakespeare thrown in) keep this hooked maniac on track.

Strong vocal performances delight throughout, notably the ladies – Kirsty Hoiles and Amy Lennox - and the comedic timing of Martin Callaghan as Smee. Along with the ensemble all sound perfect on this detailed and, incidentally, well produced and presented recording.

If there are faults, they are mostly with the pacing, which may pass un-noticed on stage but feel a little uncomfortable on CD. “Build A House” is clearly a visual number, judging by the lyric, while the finale “There’s Always Tomorrow” has the right sentiment but perhaps lacks the “button” to turn the song into the triumphant ending the show deserves.

Sometimes it is a shame that London’s West End can’t support a musical perceived as “for children” outside the Christmas or Summer Vacation period. On the strength of this disc, there should be a rush to sign up the full production rights. The monkey hopes others will agree.
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"Forbidden Broadway: Behind The Mylar Curtain"


Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. £17.95. ISBN: 978-1-55783-743-1
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Mylar is the shiny plastic sheeting (often slashed into long ribbons) forming the glittery backdrop behind cabaret performers. This book shines much like it, despite claiming to be from the dull-coloured area behind.

Like many other musical theatre obsessives, I’m most familiar with “Forbidden Broadway” on CD. Each new edition is eagerly awaited for its show-roasting, star-skewering lyrics and particularly the latest “Les Misérables” parody. Here we find out how it all came about, and it’s a fascinating story.

The earliest recordings sound endearingly naïve, and it turns out that the team indeed were. Created initially to amuse friends, Forbidden Broadway quickly became a nightclub hit in the early 1980s. Earning the respect of New York’s theatre industry, it has had many homes since; also spawning updated versions, national and international tours, and many recordings.

Gerard Alessandrini and Michael Portantiere acknowledge generously every creative contribution down the years. Many past cast and crew members also add pages of personal memories, resulting in an enthralling account of this unique theatrical venture by those who were actually there through great times and “blooper” moments.

For those (like me) who wondered how the parodies evolve, Alessandrini explains precisely how the show chooses its targets and perspectives. As a Brit (and thus used to cutting / sarcastic satirical humour), I found the reasons that they stop short of “next day in the dressing room they hang a star,” interesting. It turns out that many other factors - beyond just rabid US libel lawyers, as I originally supposed - are involved. Luckily, what is produced seems taken in (mostly) great humour by the victims – and there are plenty of photographs and anecdotes to prove it.

Best of all are long passages of lyrics, complete with stage directions. If like me you’ve never seen the actual show in New York, these add a hilarious extra dimension to the familiar CDs.

Two full-colour glossy sections, many black and white photographs and plenty of Ken Fallin cartoons combine with the beautifully organised and concise text to make this a celebration to be proud of.
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"Christmas In New York"


A CD. Catalogue number SPECKCD003
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Since 2006, the "Christmas In New York" team have given British composers an annual boost, performing a selection of their seasonal songs in the West End. This new CD aims to capture some of the best performances, and also contribute towards a Musical Theatre bursary for a student at Arts Educational School, London.

The seasonal mood is set in the sleeve notes accompanying the disc. Asked what Christmas means to them, most of the cast admit to silly games and chronic over-indulgence. Luckily this recording was made in November before the Amaretto could take hold of Paul Spicer, and while Hannah Waddingham could still make it off her folks' couch and into the studio.

With few exceptions, many of the numbers here are fresh as new snow and bright as a string of fairy lights. The lively "Christmas In New York City" from the Company gives way to a magic yet fragile piano-only accompanied "White Christmas" from Leanne Jones.

Oliver Tompsett then works well with a choir on "The Christmas" before Louise Dearman mixes new and old customs in "All Those Christmas Clichés." This gives way to my personal highlight on the recording - a blend of traditional "In The Bleak Midwinter" with the modern "A Winter's Tale." The trio of voices and careful balancing of each tune and lyric are almost worth buying the CD for alone. "What Christmas Means to Me / Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" then seems brash by comparison but proves a sensibly lively contrast before Samuel Barnett and Anna-Jane Casey turn in the yearning "Miss You Most (at Christmas Time)" and sincere "Children" respectively. Then follows a cheering "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," before Daniel Boys provides a relaxed sweet "Ave Maria."

Julie Atherton's "Perfect Year" edges Dina Carroll's famous version with a solo guitar accompaniment underlining the vocal in unique style. Leanne Jones returns with the surprising "Just In Time For Christmas" before Clement Clarke Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" is given a musical rendition by Anna-Jane Casey and the Company. The show concludes with an uplifting "O Holy Night" from Hannah Waddingham and the choir.

Bonus track "My Simple Christmas Wish" (with a dash of strong language) may be at odds with the rest of the recording, but Julie Atherton on hilarious form leaves us in no doubt of the turkey fan's career plans for next year - just be thankful you're not her agent...

After the crush of Christmas shopping, with its ubiquitous dreary seasonal tunes on a loop, this is a very refreshing and hugely more enjoyable alternative.
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"Great Showbiz and Theatrical Anecdotes,
A Connoisseur’s Collection"


By Ned Sherrin.
JR Books Ltd. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1-90621784-6
Available from Amazon.co.uk

What can be said about Ned Sherrin that has not been already? The back jacket reminds us of his many talents as broadcaster, writer, director and presenter, and his untimely death left a vast gap in the entertainment world. His parting gift to us is this sharing of what he loved best; people and places instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever seen a play or watched a great film.

Always informative, frequently hilarious (and occasionally downright bawdy) this is a seemingly definitive A to Z of showbiz gossip and scandal. Sources are sometimes first hand, his years of contact with famous names combine with a phenomenal memory and extensive past library of work to provide much of the most credible material. Other times, references are carefully authenticated by those who ‘claimed to be there.’ Unlike others, Sherrin tries to avoid the hoarier tales whose constant retelling is their only validation. He admits to leaving in a few for completeness and to ward against reader comment, but for the most part the original prevail.

Roaming London and Broadway’s backstage, Hollywood’s soundstage and most frequently the dressing rooms and private homes of those employed there, Centuries of the very best tales are drawn together. Stars from David Garrick to Ian McKellen, writers Shaw to Shaffer, composers Hart to Lloyd Webber all have the best of their public and private moments recalled with the author’s trademark clarity, incisive wit and turn of phrase.

It’s the sometimes less familiar names who provide the most wonderful moments, though. Michael Bryant’s Badger discovery beautifully deflates an over-eager young choreographer, and the hoary old Pia Zadora / Anne Frank legend is finally laid to rest. The author doesn’t stint either when there are many tales to tell. Four pages of Sir Henry Irving’s wit ends in a ribald Shakespearian story that would make Juliet blush; the three on Alan Jay Lerner simply remind us how to bring down your final curtain in style.

Not for your elderly friend whose idea of theatre is a “nice romantic musical” perhaps, the language is very much the saltier stuff of the theatrical bar raconteur; but certainly required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the lives of performers both past and present. Ned Sherrin’s voice speaks to the reader in a way few else can, and reading the final page is again to feel the pang of loss of his company, but a gratitude that we could have shared this time together
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"Bluebird"

A CD. Catalogue number ESC0004
Available from: Amazon.co.uk

There is no denying that Gareth Peter Dicks has something special. Not only has he written music, lyric and book for this show, but also managed to get it developed (via tryout “workshop” productions) into a fully orchestrated concept album featuring a host of well known theatrical names.

Concept albums have always been acknowledged as the finest way to get a work in progress heard, and the excellent cast features particularly strong leads including Ramin Karimloo, Sarah Lark, Stephen Weller and Abi Finley, and outstanding backup performers.

With the knowledge that simplicity is often the best course in musical theatre, Dicks has wisely built a book focussing on two families experiences both home and on the battlefield of World War Two. Without intricate sub-plots, he is able to explore far more naturally the effect of such devastating world events on the lives of each individual character.

Here the show is certainly at its most effective. A soldier’s letter home is incredibly moving; chilling and beautiful. Indeed, whenever characters interact via letter or in conversation (“The Hospital / Pete’s First Letter,” for example) there is no mistaking the composer’s talent for musicalising relationships. A “Final Battle” with the spirit echoing through the orchestration and leading into “Goodnight Dear Soldiers” – perfectly performed by Abi Finley – serves absolutely perfectly the production’s dramatic climax.

If there are faults in the piece, they are mainly in the lyric. The rhyming dictionary is thumbed for, “when I’m gloomy, you see through me,” while several other moments depart from otherwise sound characterisation in favour of banal “we live a loving life as our fathers did” expressions of thought and feeling. The odd modern phrase, “did they really have a clue” creeps in too, along with a Sergeant spouting possibly un-40s like popular psychology to inspire his men. All may be the types of line West End reviewers pick on with glee, but luckily these would vanish in the transition from concept to full production.

The other loss, possibly a result of simplifying the work to fit into 80 minutes of disc space, is the wonderful “Spitfires.” A lovely blend of voices with music perfectly evoking the period look set to drive the evening as narrative links. Sadly, they vanish by track 4… any chance of a return, please? Speaking of vanishing, or rather appearing without trace, we find out at the end that husband Pete called his wife Roberta “Bobbie” in their closest moments together. Had we found that out earlier, the impact throughout the show, and notably in the final number would have been even greater.

This recording shows much potential, with the writer having the firmest possible grip on the relationships which are the production’s greatest strength. With a director’s work on the rougher edges of the lyric, this recording confirms that the whole is a piece worth progressing; and is an early work-in-progress disc that musical theatre fans would wish to have in their collection.
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"My Favourite Musicals"

A CD in association with the National Youth Music Theatre.
USM Junior. Item number: USMJRDCD009
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Aimed at a younger teen audience, the most immediately striking feature of this disc is just how wide their tastes in musical theatre must be. You’d of course expect “High School Musical” (and its sequels) to feature prominently, and “Joseph” is almost compulsory - along with a couple of songs from “Grease.” The surprises are how well Abba have transcended the generations to get three “Mamma Mia” tracks featured, the fact that a traditional musical like “Hairspray” is considered worthy of inclusion, and that 80s number “Fame” still resonates today.

Each song is beautifully presented. Rather than lazily settling for being a “compilation” of original tunes drawn from previous cast outings, instead each track has been recorded by a string of very talented session singers.

Oddly, some of the vocals – particularly those on the “High School Musical” numbers – improve somewhat on the originals. There is a confidence found in the professionals’ voices which isn’t always apparent in the actual films. It may be that singers who do this full-time simply develop a different style from actors who sing, or it just might be that this disc’s producers were aiming for a smoother tone to the whole than the grittiness of the film.

The accompanying bonus DVD offers up a selection of 8 tracks, in either sing-a-long or karaoke form. Both options bring up the lyric, highlighted to the rhythm against a static background. The sing-a-long versions provided the melodic line to warble happily along to in harmony with the performers. The karaoke version just provides the rhythm, a far more challenging route for the aspiring young performer to test themselves against.

The National Youth Music Theatre are supporting this compilation of tracks, possibly hoping that those singing along will find their way into the ranks of the organisation some time. This nifty little end of school break treat may indeed just encourage some teens to investigate performing when term restarts, and who knows where that may lead?
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"A Spoonful of Stiles and Drewe"

Highlights recorded live at Her Majesty's Theatre 2008 CD.
Speckulation Entertainment. Item number: SPECKCD001
available from Amazon.co.uk

Many composers have undertaken remarkable journeys from playroom piano to West End Stage. Lord Lloyd Webber’s artistic output (since “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” aged five, allegedly) has been catalogued on disc many times. Stiles and Drewe, twenty five years in the business, now receive a similar accolade. They may not be in the business of scaring younger children every Saturday tea-time on BBC1, unless writing incidental music to “Doctor Who,” but their output certainly justifies this unusual and absorbing CD.

Recorded live at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, in October 2008, a string of well known West End performers including Scarlett Strallen, Joanna Riding, Clive Rowe and Claire Moore, plus newcomers like Gareth Gates and Leanne Jones lead us through the output of a still evolving partnership.

Kicking off with “Just So” in 1985, Rowe, Dempsey and Atherton do justice to songs which showed early promise but rather explained why the original West End transfer didn’t happen. An exuberant celebration of the “Joy of Motherhood” from “Honk!” then leads on to even better things with “Peter Pan.” For those familiar with the 1954 Broadway version, this is strikingly deeper, with a wistful “There’s Always Tomorrow” setting a new standard in their work. Lisa O’Hare wittily reminds us of the duo’s “Mary Poppins” experience; before a change of pace with a Joyce Grenfellesque “Carrying A Torch,” preceding two further cabaret numbers. Alison Jiear’s salute to musical ambition is almost worth the price alone.

Rounding off the disc is a sneak look at their latest work, “Soho Cinders.” Strong language, yes, but incredibly strong songs to match. Promising yet another new direction for the pair, there is plenty to look forward to. With the finale placing on record the cast thanking the audience, listeners will also thank Spekulation Entertainment’s forethought in releasing the show for all to share.
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"Sweeney Todd In Concert"
Region 0 DVD

Thanks to inflation, it has become impossible to reproduce the original Broadway 1979 staging of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Luckily, it was recorded (during a later 1982 tour) and was made available on DVD in 2005. Before that release, the score might have been lost but for this imaginative preservation attempt by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Rob Fisher and director Lonnie Price. In 2000 they came up with the idea of a concert version of the show, a success which lead to stagings in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, where this DVD was filmed.

Due to last-minute illness causing Bryn Terfel to drop out, the 2005 stage DVD’s George Hearn takes the lead as Todd in this concert version too. It is fascinating how age has mellowed both his voice and approach to the role, as Sweeney becomes more contemplative and relaxed than ever portrayed before.

His Mrs Lovett this time is Patti Lupone. The “Making Of” extras on this disc show Sondheim himself telling her to “sing what you like” if she forgets the words… and with a singing voice like that it is no wonder he is willing to compromise. Lupone’s only fault – also a problem with Neil Patrick “Doogie Howser MD” Harris as Toby – is the British accent during the dialogue scenes. Lupone runs from Maureen Lipman to Barbara Windsor, while Neil’s Toby is noticeably Cockney to Welsh. Like Lupone, Harris sings well, but he lacks emotional understanding during his pivotal “Not While I’m Around.” Sound comic timing compensates for this flaw, luckily.

The supporting cast make much use of both the energy and their considerable vocal talents. Among this ensemble, Victoria Clark as Beggar Woman / Lucy and Timothy Nolen as the Judge give probably the definitive rendition of their roles. The monkey cannot praise either small but important performance highly enough. Davis Gaines as Mark and Lisa Vroman as Johanna also provide strength in their sub-plot romance which remarkably lightens the evening while adding tension simultaneously.

Director Price admits that his “multi-level platforms surrounding the orchestra” approach keeps the actors running and the pace smart. Small cuts to the score keep the attention focused, and will not be noticed by most. Restored is “Johanna” – the Judge’s Song – which fans of the original cast album will delight in here. Sensibly simple dress and props give more than sufficient detail to enable the story to be told to anyone unfamiliar with the work.

With soaring chorals, some fine bleak comic moments and an Act One ending which is stronger than the fully staged original, this is a DVD that Sondheim collectors will want to have, and a good introduction for others to this composer’s masterpiece.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
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"Marguerite"

Original 2008 London Cast Recording CD.
First Night Records. Item number: Cast CD102
available from Amazon.co.uk

“Intoxication” is a key number in this musical, bringing together the major storylines playing out to a dramatic finish. It could, though, just as easily describe the effect of this album on any listener giving it their full attention.

Capturing well the morally decadent atmosphere against which the tale of Occupied Paris unfolds, it goes further than many cast albums by offering a distinctive entertainment in its own right. The vocal performances allow character personalities to develop in listeners minds as easily as on stage, and careful editing keeps the storyline clear too.

Ruthie Henshall’s “China Doll” is as heartbreaking here as if she were singing standing by the piano at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Annalene Beechey’s “Jazz Time” is similarly effective. Alexander Hanson’s confusion and sadism in “I Hate The Very Thought of Women” chills, while Matt Cross’s humour luckily relieves the ongoing grimness. The ensemble number lyrics are actually more comprehensible on CD than in the theatre, with their breathtaking hypocrisy providing a smart finish.

The usual high production standards of a First Night album are in evidence with a glossy lyric book, lavishly illustrated with production photographs and well-considered sleeve notes. A bonus track from the original demo recording is a final reason to make this album part of your stage collection as soon as possible.
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"Into The Woods"

Region 0 DVD
Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Note: this disc may require a multi-regional or region 1 DVD player.

As the era of the 80's mega-musical drew to a close, Sondheim weighed in with his effort "Into The woods." The lavishly staged original Broadway production was filmed for television, and released on DVD in 2005.

The basic fairytales of Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella become hopelessly and hilariously entangled during Act One, with a happy ending to bring the curtain down. By Act Two, though, a giantess is running amuck and Prince Charming is off charming someone else (not sure who, but a dwarf is involved). With the good advice of the Witch to be “careful the things to wish for” ignored, and the Narrator dead, the indecisive storybook characters must this time bring about their own happy endings, which they do to some beautiful music.

Perhaps some of the staging now looks a little dated. Indeed, the London production of this show (which followed Broadway’s by about a year) was already a step on from this original. London had a tighter book and less cumbersome set… but what it didn’t have was Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien and the delightfully bratty Danielle Ferland. You’ll enjoy all three performances here, along with Barbara Bryne’s well-judged comic turn as Jack’s exasperated mother and Kim Crosby’s winsomely witless Cinderella.

The sophisticated jokes fly, most landing brilliantly, and there is always something intellectual from Mr Sondheim’s lyric to keep interested those who consider themselves too old for fairy tales. If at times the script wanders and characters vanish too quickly, it doesn’t matter as the score forgives almost all.

Not quite as accessible as “Sweeney Todd,” but perhaps a little more so than “Company;” this DVD is a must for collectors of course, but also one to buy for those wishing to discover Sondheim at his most entertaining.
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"Company"

Region 2 DVD

Just how long can single New Yorker Robert (Bobby) remain, “a thing of beauty and a boy forever?” Today is his 35th birthday, and his (crazy) married friends are throwing him a surprise party. As it approaches, his thoughts turn towards love and whether someone special is waiting for him... or already passed him by…

John Doyle’s acclaimed New York 2006 Ethel Barrymore Theatre production is now released on DVD. The style is original 1970s “New York Sharp” for everybody except Raul Esparza’s Bobby - the naïve observer; and the cast play their own instruments, brilliantly.

This inspired concept allows the “Drive a Person Crazy” trio to set a new standard for this classic number and demonstrate Amy Justman as a fine pianist. Vocally, Barbara Walsh delivers “Ladies Who Lunch” with perfect control and triggers Bobby’s final emotional outpouring with masterful timing. Similarly, Heather Laws handles Amy’s equally intricate “Not Getting Married Today” patter with skill.

Angel Desai is liberation personified in a slinky top-of-piano performance as Marta, and outstanding are Kristin Huffman and Keith Buterbaugh. As Sarah and Harry, their inspired karate sequence will no doubt be copied by every new amateur director of this piece for years to come.

Unlike the 1995 Donmar Warehouse London production in which the actors interacted as equals within Bobby’s mind, here Bobby’s emotional immaturity is underlined. It works when Bobby is trying to analyse friends’ relationships, but reduces his cathartic closing number “Being Alive” to something rather self-pitying instead of actualising. Still, better than the monkey philosophy of love (find the one monkeyette who hates you more than any other monkey on the planet, and give her your house and car) perhaps.

This production shines as bright as the disc it is captured on. A dazzlingly deft dissection of a great work for Sondheim fans, a sound introduction to his wider works for those who first encountered him via 2008s “Sweeney Todd.” Either way, this is a must.

Note: The international edition of this DVD, does not include the “extras” printed on the case. Apparently they were sadly not cleared for international release, but this information wasn’t received early enough to remove mention on the packaging.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk This is the Region 1 edition - a multi-regional DVD player may be required outside the USA. On the plus side, it has the extras promised!
____________________________________________

"The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi"


by Andrew McConnell Stott.
Canongate. ISBN 9781847672957.

Andrew McConnell Stott has written perhaps the finest biography the monkey read in 2009. Following his modern day prologue at the annual Clowns' Memorial Service in Hackney, the turn of a page takes us back to Boxing Day 1810, as the greatest clown of all is about to step onto the pantomime stage.

We are then treated to an enthralling biography of the clown himself, with stories illustrating the theatrical and social scene around him adding extra colour. At the end, for further interest, pantomime "Mother Goose" is reproduced in full from an 1807 printing and the "Notes" section contains famous extracts of verse including Joe's own "Hot Codlins," written for him by Dibden.

Deciding to take this broad view is a wise one. With few solid records and so many anecdotes abounding (the "go see the great clown to cure your depression - I am that clown" story is here weighed and rightly fast dispatched) lesser authors might become mired in probably irrelevant details. Instead, placing Grimaldi in his favourite environment allows us to enjoy the intrigues of the artistes' "Green Room" and managers' offices; with excursions into the auditorium, Parliament and the homes of gentry and commoners alike to balance out the biographical insights.

Best of all, Stott's text is as light as Harlequin's moves, his eye for humour and the need to clarify details for those unschooled in that period always as deft and sure. Not a single passage drags, and it is both the facts and the atmosphere of the era that the reader will absorb by the end.

For those like the monkey, who know little about that theatrical period, this proves an excellent guide. Those interested in the history of comedy will find it a "must purchase" if only to discover who invented "huge clown shoes" and other comedic elements now taken for granted. Taken simply as a biography, for those who enjoy the genre, the monkey opinion is that this is one strongly deserving of a place on your bookshelf.
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"Finishing The Hat"


by Stephen Sondheim.
Virgin Books. ISBN 9780753522585.
Available from Amazon.co.uk

Having read this, the monkey was as happy as the python that swallowed an elephant…

…and is now taking extended sedentary leave in order to digest it. There is much to take in, and all of it deserving extended contemplation.

This is a very frank ramble through the mind of one of the world’s best musical theatre composers. From ‘Saturday Night’ (1954) to ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ (1981) - (a forthcoming second book will cover his later work), every major show on which he worked, either as lyricist or full composer, is covered. The major numbers in each are given a running commentary – why they were written or changed, the technicalities of musical theatre creation, plus a few observations and reproductions of his handwritten manuscripts. Always informative, sometimes over-harshly self critical, the dissections gave the monkey a healthy new respect for the craft.

It isn’t all gloomy introspection, though. Gems such as the truth behind his most amusing (and filthiest) ‘double entendre’ are revealed (sadly, that one was a happy accident of transatlantic English, rather than ‘planned by a genius’ as I’d hoped) are uncovered; while the chaos of the rehearsal room is described in enough detail to make you wish you were there… when it is going well, at least.

Interspersing these show commentaries are some startlingly iconoclastic arguments and opinions about his musical theatre contemporaries. By declaring at the outset that he will only discuss deceased composers work, Sondheim is able to expound fully without inhibition on these. You may agree or disagree with each argument (Noel Coward in particular I felt was a trifle hard-done-by) but each piece justifies its ideas, and is a talking point rather than ill-defined attack.

Other thoughts also feature throughout the text. One mild eyebrow-raiser for the monkey as a theatre reviewer was Sondheim’s opinion that musicals are the only art form exclusively reviewed by non-musical people. It’s true but, taken to its logical conclusion, it might reduce the entire qualified UK ‘musical theatre reviewing community’ to pretty much Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stiles and Drewe… scary. Also fascinating was his truth that ‘everybody thinks they can fix a show – they can’t.’ As somebody who often dares to venture an opinion on such things, that rightly had this simian thinking again…

Fortunately, the monkey received this as a gift from a friend who was frustrated that I hadn’t got around to reading it on publication. The fortune is that because it didn’t purchase it, it was able to instead fill the gaps in its Sondheim CD collection. Be warned, if you don’t have a recording of each show mentioned in the book, you will very quickly wish to do so. As each disc plays, this book will enhance your pleasure as the numbers acquires a new meaning and many lines take on a fresh significance.

A ‘must purchase’ for fans, and equally a superb guide for the less initiated in the world of a supremely talented man.
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"Wicked In Rock"

By Kerry Ellis
2008 release.
Buy at Amazon.co.uk

There is a strange law of genetics which says the very best West End leading ladies should be shorter than 5ft 5 tall and have amazingly huge voices. Kerry Ellis joins Elaine Paige and Linzi Hateley in that number, and here releases a very special treat for "Wicked" fans and general musical theatre lovers equally.

So good as "Elphaba" that she was stolen from the London production to play the Broadway version for six months in 2008, until we could steal her back in December; Kerry's parting gift is a stunning three track disc showcasing her voice at its finest.

"Defying Gravity" may be identified with belter Idina Menzel, but Ellis takes it to new heights with a rock beat and razor-sharp vocal performance setting a vision for the future which we just know is the right path to follow. Utterly convincing and demands attention to every note - you'll be glad your teen daughter has this on permanent loop when she buys it, as there is something extra to hear each time.

Track two is monkey favourite "I'm Not That Girl." Who knows if Kerry has ever felt that way in real life (c'mon, you really think she ever has?!); but whatever she draws on to deliver this could make her a fortune, bottled and sold to musical theatre students. Another sophisticated arrangement and deeply thought out lead vocal, this isn't just a cry of pain, but the human condition heart-breakingly summarized.

The final track, "No One But You" is a contrast to the "Wicked" score, offering a chance for Ellis to explore her performing range and providing a neat treat to round off with. Highly reccomended.
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"Haunted"

by Ian John Shillito and Becky Walsh
Tempus Publishing Ltd. ISBN 9780752445212

As a writer on London Theatre, the monkey knows from feedback on its own work that a good theatrical ghost story is always appreciated by readers. Ian John Shillito and Becky Walsh, though, take things several steps further in this thin, disconcerting set of reports from the spook-face. Full time investigators of the paranormal, Shillito and Walsh present here the results of almost a dozen full `site investigations,' plus short paragraphs about many other venues they either chose / could not fully check out.

Those who regularly visit London's theatres know that each has a unique `feel' and personality. As somebody who is lucky enough to also visit them during the day time without audiences present, the monkey can confirm that the atmosphere is often magnified during those quieter moments. Ian and Becky make the point that theatre folk are almost always sensitive to `something in the air' in their workplace, and on that score, monkey says they were absolutely correct.

Where anybody may care to differ is on interpretation of those feelings. For each venue they investigate fully, a quick history lesson is followed by interviews with those who've worked there. These are followed by an `investigation' and a conclusion, complete with 1 to 10 `Haunted Scale' ranking.

The investigations invariably involve Becky `sensing something,' with Ian more sceptical yet sometimes experiencing 'something' too. Becky on a number of occasions reports acting to `free' the unhappy spirits she encountered. Though perhaps depriving theatres of a unique presence (or just a good story), it humanised the text in places - grounding it in a reality any reader could understand.

The conclusions each time are equally a balancing act between the pair, and the monkey did respect the way in which a rational explanation was always sought first. Whichever side of the scientific debate you are on (for monkey, it just believes science doesn't know everything yet, but that everything comes from some form of fundamental existential organisation we loosely call `science'), these are decent tales to be taken as you wish.

If it has a gripe about this book, it is - as a reviewer on Amazon.co.uk points out - in the editing. Syntax and spelling go awry more often than a decent ghost writer (sorry, couldn't resist) or editor should allow, though the book picks up points for including many eerie and evocative monochrome photographs.

There are plenty of spectres everybody in the West End knows about - from Drury Lane's Grey Man to the Adelphi's time-share in William Terriss - but this book contains many the monkey had never heard of before. Add the fact it doesn't take itself too seriously, but does a nice line in chill, and this becomes a readable reference work for the theatre enthusiast looking to broaden their knowledge of these marvellous old buildings.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
__________________________________________________

"Sunday In The Park With George"


2006 London Cast Recording CD
PS Classics 82876823482

This memorably captures forever in small laser etched pits rather than paint spots, London’s Menier Chocolate Factory production of a modern Sondheim classic experiment.

On stage, effective use was made of back projections to provide a canvas for artist Seurat and his muse Dot. Here, the sound is balanced to ensure the performers’ voices are always to the fore and every word is clear. Jenna Russell’s voice is warm – with a hint of exasperation – as she chides George for his lack of affection. Daniel Evans meanwhile manages a clinical detachment with her while remaining interesting to us as he shares the thoughts of the creating artist.

Elsewhere on the recording, the unforgettable park scenes involving everybody at the Grande Jatte are powerfully evoked with a sense of space and distance achieved by careful studio work. The orchestra itself was small in the theatre, and sensibly are augmented by three extra players here. The richness of "We Do Not Belong Together" impresses with its simplicity - the feeling not overwhelmed (as usually happens) by a too elaborate orchestration. Oh, and "Everybody Loves Louis" is a hoot, too... wonderful bawdy comic timing.

The overall effect is considerably less harsh than the Broadway recording. The re-writing Sondheim did of Act Two for the original National Theatre London production also stands the test of time, which means the disc is strong throughout, rather than fading towards the end as on the previous recording. Another unmissable addition to the collection for Sondheim fans, especially as this is the first time the score has been released almost entirely uncut.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
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"A Little Night Music"

(region 1 - may not play on UK region 2 machines).

Much maligned on cinema release, this Hal Prince film version of the Sondheim classic musical has languished in the vaults until now. Time hasn't been kind to the print - the DVD faithfully shows every scratch on it, uncorrected by the low-budget company releasing the movie for the first time on disc. Still, through the gloom (allegedly sometimes there to flatter star Elizabeth Taylor) a fascinating production emerges.

Elizabeth Taylor sings, and actually makes a fair job of sending in the clowns. Len Cariou as Frederick is as fatally charming as he could be, while Hermione Gingold produces the perfect acid commentary on events from her chair. Add Diana Rigg and an early performance by Lesley Dunlop, but subtracting (sadly) "Miller's Son" and two other numbers from the score and the result is a flawed but highly watchable gem.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
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"Fiddler On The Roof"
2006 London Cast Recording.
Label: matheatre  

The Sheffield production which was thrice extended at the Savoy Theatre is captured on CD to delight all who were lucky enough to see the show.

For the first time a contemporary sound has been brought to the well loved score and what it lacks in Broadway strings it makes up for in a percussion and accordion which bring the rhythm of old Russia appropriately to the fore The warmth of Henry Goodman's voice is combined with his vocal acting abilities to produce a Tevye of depth and originality. Moving from the childish joy of "If I Were a Rich Man" to the heartbroken introspection of "Chavaleh" the role is his own as much on record as on stage.

 Of his family, Alexandra Silber delights during "Matchmaker" and together with Beverley Klein's numerous contributions justify this recording alone. Special mention must be given to the ensemble too, who create choral beauty during "Sabbath Prayer" and later cause tears to be shed at the bravado of "Anatevka" - the chilling line "We are not in America Yet" providing the bittersweet finish that ends a remarkable disc perfectly. 

The recording is available exclusively from Dress Circle - The Showbiz Shop at: www.dresscircle.com ___________________________________________________

"Muse of Fire"

Dan Poole and Giles Terera had two things in common; acting ambitions, and a loathing of Shakespeare born in school.
Lacking cash, a reliable car and any real contacts in the theatrical world, they decided to make a film about that loathing. 25,000 miles and over 2 years later, “Muse of Fire” is the result.

Starting with a “vox pops” outside a West End theatre, in which most contributors could quote something by the Bard but little more, the duo decided to contact as many well known exponents of the Shakespearian stage as possible in order to demystify and return to the public the greatest ever playwright.

Interviews with – among others - Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, James Earl Jones, Mark Rylance, Tom Hiddleston, Jude Law, Zoe Wanamaker, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi and, finally their idol Baz Luhrman follow. The journey to meet them all goes from London to Los Angeles, via productions of plays staged in Denmark, Madrid and a tiny theatre in the Eastern USA, that they just happened to notice in passing.

Most of all, the journey happens to the two young men. Their rather frantic “mugging for the camera” tone at the outset become far more mature as the pair grow along with their project. The slightly outdated, well, downright cheap cartoon graphics depicting their journey become less a rebellion, more proof of just how tight the budget is – the scenes of Poole tiling a bathroom for a living underlining the fact.
After all that effort, what is achieved? Steven Berkoff is the answer. His transformation into “The Godfather” as he recites Shakespearian text is simple proof that it is all about how the word is spoken, and that “the rest is silence.” A compelling presentation, with the language given a meaning and context is all that is really required. Sure, knowing iambic pentameter helps (you’ll be an expert after watching this), but entertaining clarity is all.

The companion disc to the feature is a further hour of drama classes, “Shakespeare In Practice” where a troupe of mostly young actors are coached by such experts as Peter Gill and Bonnie Greer. There’s several exciting moments, including Sandy Foster and Tony Hasnath as Romeo and Juliet (a clip of which appears also in the main film) and the deep joy when an Orphelia and Hamlet know they have “got the scene right” under the direction of Henry Goodman.

This pair of films should be of interest to anyone hoping to learn just why they should love a 400 year old writer. It may not be the most polished of documentaries, but the list of interviewees is impressive, and collectively Dan and Giles have ended up with an important documentation of opinions from some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s greatest actors and directors. An historic achievement in itself, and one arguably of importance to posterity in its own right. Rather like the plays themselves, in fact.

Buy at www.amazon.co.uk.
___________________________________________________

"Shakespeare"

by Bill Bryson.
Atlas Books / Harper Press. ISBN 9780007197897

For those who don't know Bill Bryson, he is the Iowan anglophile with the ability to see the world from a uniquely entertaining perspective. In this short book his gaze turns to Shakespeare and in true Bryson fashion comes up with a new angle for a biography... telling us how little is actually known about the man who may or may not have existed yet still provided a few enduring plays.

Padding out the actual facts (a Shakespeare family were prominent in Stratford-Upon-Avon at one time, a Shakespeare signed a witness statement to a London court, a group of actors remembered enough of their roles fifteen years ago to publish a book of plays bearing his name and a nice sketch of a man who could be him) with descriptions of the time he may have lived, the result is the usual Bryson romp through Englishness. The book works best as an informed look at the period - the monkey loved shuddering at the descriptions of theatregoing behaviour of the time (not a lot different to audiences at... well, never mind...) - and the arbitrariness of life back then. If the water didn't get you, the food / laws / drunken rabble would - and there was little could be done about it.

A swift overview of the plays themselves proved amusing in that nobody seems truly sure of the order in which they were written, or indeed whether they are the product of one author. Bryson deals with the various claims of ownership decisively, proving at least one to be false beyond reasonable doubt. He is keen to keep an open mind that collaboration may have happened, though, and provides a convincing explanation as to why. Add sub-plots on Shakespeare's sexuality and how close he came to execution for treason; combine with an obvious appreciation of the works themselves and the result is a very readable history-cum-biography that should entertain as well as enlighten.
___________________________________________________


"The Road to Find Out: East"
2014
La
Hear it now: here.

Bluegrass music is a type of country / Celtic cross, where the instruments are country, the sound Celtic and the tune given a bit of a jazz improvisation as well. Add acclaimed musical theatre performer Ramin Karimloo’s voice and classic show tunes and the result is a totally unique sound.

First up, “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” is even fresher than the morning it’s celebrating. A violin set up a swinging vocal, a steel guitar carrying it along and a lot of fun is had with the end of each phrase (plus, the conversation with the instruments is wonderful). You’ll never be satisfied with the original after hearing this.

“Losing,” and “Broken,” are a pair of new songs written with Hadley Fraser. The first is a duet about the future of a couple, a strong violin backing adding melancholy to their questioning of relationships and identity. “Broken,” a livelier solo number, has a strong tambourine driven rhythm. Female loss from a male viewpoint, it’s an unusual perspective and demands repeat listening.

Finally, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” the famous “Les Misérables” number moves to a Deep South bayou at sunset. The voice is satisfying, but it’s the instruments behind it that set the atmosphere. Unusual, and sure to be a collectors’ item – not to mention a reason for an inventive director to try transferring the whole to a New Orleans setting some time.

The first of a four part experiment, if the other three are of the same standard, this is a collection any fan will wish to own – and will win him many more.
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The Musical World of Boublil and Schonberg

by Margaret Vermette.
Applause Theatre Book Publishers. £9.99
ISBN: 1557837155 or 978-1557837158

One of the peculiar items in the monkey stocking this past season was the glittering thing it wouldn't talk about earlier. One of the others was this book... having read it, the monkey isn't sure which is stranger. Margaret Vermette is apparently an experienced author, writing for respected publications including "Musical Stages." This book may surprise connoisseur readers of that publication.

Those expecting a comprehensive composer / lyricist biography or indeed critique of the duo's work will be disappointed. Objective commentary on their output is also out. To her credit, Vermette admits at the outset to being a fan, and the photograph on the back confirms it. And this is where the monkey began wondering...

Split into three sections, the first is simply a tribute to them. Vermette seems to consider the mens' current record to be an apex of theatrical achievement equal to that of Lloyd Webber and Rogers and Hammerstein. The casual reader won't mind... anyone who really loves the subject may well be scratching their heads by this stage, though.

On to section two. The first part promises a "biographical portrait" - but is shortened to more of a charcoal sketch of each man. Still, it is a well-executed sketch and a full biography at some point would be welcome. Following this, a particularly dull (to the informed) / mostly already published before (for the obsessive fan who has read all the articles) / fascinating (to the theatrical first timer or outsider) section deals with the creative processes and teams behind the shows. Much of the material seems drawn from already published sources or has been said before. For those who really don't know how a show is created there is plenty to read. For the rest, it is just another rundown - though you can compare the slight differences in methods between this team and Sondheim, for example.

Finally, a fairly useful "Fact File" detailing plot, awards and odd facts for each show is provided. The discography isn't comprehensive - the monkey itself owns recordings not mentioned - but as a quick reference the monkey suddenly saw the point of the work. Expanded to include full cast change dates and details, along with venues, this section in itself could be the basis of a really satisfying work.

Obviously researched with love, and readably written, the book should delight the casual theatregoer captivated by the pair's musical creativity. More experienced theatregoers may find the reference section helpful, but overall the monkey wished for something more original and incisive.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
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"The Shakespeare Secret"

By J.L. Carrell.
Sphere Paperback. ISBN: 9780751540352

In the USA known as "Interred With Their Bones"
By Jennifer Lee Carrell
Dutton Adult Hardback. ISBN: 0525949704

What a romp this is! For those, like the monkey, who felt "The Da Vinci Code" over-hyped and totally obvious from a quarter of the way through; J.L. Carrell's alternative proves that Bill the Quill blueprints are far superior. Carrell's sly wit in construction means this is a thriller working on more levels than a Canary Wharf elevator operator.

Taken one way, you have "Indiana Jones and the Raider of the Lost Art" as academic turned theatre director Kate swings across the planet in search of the Bard's lost work. Complete with requisite "Hmm, there appears to be a... here" and "With One Bound our Hero Was Free" moments, it's all the clichés a good thriller should have - and seldom goes flat for more than the odd page.

Pause a moment, and you realise that there is more to it. The chapter layout echoes Shakespearian plays, as does the pace with events unfolding in tried-and-tested theatrical patterns. After a while, look back over the chapters and find some very obviously Old Swan reverencing hallmarks in the tale. (DON'T READ THIS LINE TO AVOID A SPOILER) you get a trail of corpses, some cross-dressing and plenty of twisted families and classic Globe-stage disposal methods littering the plot.

There's a third level beyond this, though, and that is a level of scholarship in the research which fans of Bill Bryson's latest "Shakespeare" (reviewed in a previous "Mashed Banana") will appreciate. Carrell takes what we know and creates a loving fantasia on it that manages to both convince and parody without breaking the spell.

Sure, other thriller writers arguably have slightly better control of pace - moving the action along without resort to the most obvious devices - but the stagelike signalling of these suits the style of the work, and the result is fun that kept the monkey reading until the final potion (champagne) was drunk... with the expected results...
___________________________________________________

"Life After Tomorrow"

A film by Julie Stevens and Gil Cates Jr.
www.lifeaftertomorrow.com
Region 1 DVD - this disc will play on multi-regional and American / Canadian DVD players. It may not play on UK region 2 only, or other similarly "region locked" machines.
Runs 1 hour 15 minutes approximately, plus over 45 minutes of extra material.

Nearly thirty years have passed since "Annie" first opened on Broadway - and later gave a young monkey a lifelong case of "showtunes" on transfer to London. Millions of youngsters have looked forward to the promise of "Tomorrow," moaned (or rapped) about their "Hard Knock Life" and reminded us that "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile." A very lucky few actually played in the show professionally on Broadway or one of the U.S tours. Question is, what happened to them once they outgrew the "cute orphan" phase? Ex-Hannigan charge turned film-maker Julie Stevens decided to find out, giving over forty (now adult) cast members a chance to reminisce and ruminate on their time in red dress or rags.

From audition memories and the first Goodspeed Opera House tryout (for those who thought Andrea McArdle was the original Annie, wrong, think Kristen Vigard) to Broadway, endless road tours and on to adulthood, both the cast and creative team remind us just how long ago the 1970s were. Eight auditions over a year, each up to six hours long for those not "cut on sight" were normal. Children aged between 7 and 12 exited the stage door and headed into New York's notorious "Studio 54" nightclub three times a week, or else passed their time skating near a brothel, taunting the workers. The theatre itself was equally unsafe, with intensive biology and sociological lessons courtesy of a jealous adult cast. "I was 10, going on 40" was how one girl put it; oh, and Miss Hannigan didn't always pull her punches either. Throw in pushy moms brawling, a stalker with a gun and a slightly odd super-fan with an amazing collection of 'Annie' goods and it is small wonder the former orphans would, to a woman, discourage their own children from going into the acting business.

It isn't all bleak, though. The well-balanced mixture of interviews and original show footage allow the unreality and humour of the situation to emerge too. Removing longer sequences to the "extras" section of the DVD (the re-united cast routines with original choreography are a must in this section of the disc) allows both the story of the show, and those who took part in it, to meld seamlessly and simultaneously into both record and investigative retrospective of an iconic production. With the chance to hear from famous names like Sarah Jessica Parker and Allison Smith, as well as rare footage of Charnin and Strouse, this is a cautionary tale well worth watching for both fans of the show and those considering a child-star career.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk
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"The Faber Pocket Guide: Musicals"

By James Inverne.
faber and faber. ISBN: 9780571237517

James Inverne is an outstanding writer. His boundless enthusiasm for the subject comes across in this highly readable pocket guide to stage musicals.

Sensibly laid out, we are first treated to a personal exposition on the history of the stage musical, before the author picks 100 of the best. Of course, with so many to choose from, you'll have plenty of fun disagreeing with his choices. "Annie," "The Fantasticks" and "Grand Hotel" are absent, to name but three, yet included are those on the opera / musical borderline like "Candide."

Each selection is given an introduction, trivia spot, synopsis and `recommended recording' treatment. Occasionally the balance in length between them has a reader thinking, "I'd like to know more about..., so why did he discuss...?" but each is still informative enough that your CD collection will grow exponentially after reading.

Insightful essays on matters musical follow. The writer's own top 10 will obviously please nobody but himself; rightly so, and it is just a pleasure to learn far more about his own tastes. His musings on "Musicals Go To The Opera" seem, to my own (probably philistine) ear, to rather over-complicate the issue. It's pretty simple; when hearing a musical theatre diva in full belt, I can distinguish every word and think "wow!" An opera singer in full vocal exposition simply induces a headache within minutes.

Wrapping up the book is Mr Inverne's choice of 10 musical flops. Again his list will spark huge debate, with such treasures-that-deserve-to-be-buried as "Bernadette," "A Doll's Life," "Jeeves" and "Kelly" missing. Still, it leaves plenty of room for a sequel.

The only failure of this book is in its editing. In several places an uneducated pen has cut important detail from the text, leaving a howler behind. The former is occasionally to the detriment of show descriptions; the latter will irritate musical theatre buffs, and require quiz compliers to cross-check details.

Still, this a must for all musical theatre fans wishing to learn a little more about them; particularly assisting newcomers as an introduction to this strange and wonderful world.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk.
______________________________________________________________________________________

"Backstage Pass to Broadway"

 
by Susan L. Schulman
Heliotrope Books LLC. ISBN: 978-0983294092

Few theatregoers ever pause to consider who first told them about the show they are seeing. If it wasn’t a friend, chances are it was an advertisement or item in the press / online / a TV programme. So how did they get there? This book answers the question, rather beautifully.

Susan L. Schulman converted her love of Broadway theater into a career spanning over 40 years to date. As press representative on hundreds of shows she’s met the greatest and best and seen them at their worst. This are some of those stories.

Her background as a press agent shines out from every page of this slim volume. It’s slim because her years of experience allow her to tell the most compelling tales in the most economical language. This makes for easy reading, her style moving things along as the most entertaining productions should.

Even better, her finely honed sense of discretion allows her to speak about stars in a manner both revealing yet respectful. Revelations are carefully balanced to avoid any sense of a tabloid attack, and even the biggest divas come out with their talents recognised ahead of any misbehaviour. There’s no sense of “legal advice taken” either, just a demonstration of a skill acquired over many years.

Speaking of skills, pages 161 and 162 (of the printed edition) should be compulsory reading for anyone considering putting out a theatrical press release. As a “victim” myself of some of the worst efforts, I for one would really appreciate it.

It’s a nicely produced book too, with some interesting (never seen before) photos. Leave out the irony of her advice on page 166 about proof-reading (there’s the odd typo), and concentrate on the stories, and you’ll fall in love with Broadway all over again. Another victory for the press agent, of course...

Buy from Amazon.co.uk.

 

 

 


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