(seen at the afternoon performance on 22nd January 2020).
A life-long devotee of the original Mary Rogers teen fantasy trilogy of novels and multiples films, the monkey has awaited eagerly a London production of this stage musical.
With music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, and a book by Bridget Carpenter, the storyline is an improvement on previous movies. A bouncy mixture of “teen pop,” “Broadway” and even a wicked blues pastiche - plus clever word-play - create plenty of meaning for those who are or remember being those years.
Taking this strong material, the BA Musical Theatre course graduates of ArtsEd, have beyond doubt woven the definitive production of the show.
Blending elements of every previous incarnation, this version sees a magic hourglass trigger widow Katherine Blake’s body and mind swap with teen daughter Ellie. Ellie / Katherine is left fumbling through wedding preparations, childcare and business worries. Katherine / Ellie meanwhile gets to re-live High School, first love, peer group squalls and the powerlessness that comes with being too young to be heard.
Nic Myers as Katherine is perfection. Actor and singer of outstanding ability, her range is underlined as she establishes herself as both mother and daughter in the space of the first 30 minutes and has us believing equally in both.
Totally convincing as her daughter, and mom, Alice Croft’s Ellie is hyper-intelligent, scarily adult yet childlike as required. Shining as she both opens and ends the show, she has her own wonderful moments, including a beautiful maternal scene with young Fletcher (Ian Veirs, who no doubt will dazzle at his own graduation in a decade or so). Markus Sodergren as husband Mike shares the end of that moment, his tenderness reaching far into the house.
As any good high school experience show does, everything else divides along team lines. We meet Ellie’s friends and enemies, Katherine’s family and workmates, the academic faculty and a host of supporting characters.
So, Ellie gets best friends Gretchen (Paige Blankson) and Hannah (Stacey Cornes). Only given brief moments to establish their characters at the beginning, both get to shine in later scenes, portraying drama and emerging womanhood with equal detail.
Male friends Wells and Parker (Tom Francis and Henry Firth) do well too. Again with little time, their double-act (triple, including frogs?) is done smartly.
Rounding out her group, the object of Ellie’s affections and List Master to the Hunt, there’s excellent work from Josh Clemetson as Adam. A moment of male-bonding over women and sandwiches is a vocal highlight, while the lightness of touch he brings to budding romance is beautifully judged.
Against this happy band, high school top-dog Annell Odartey as Savannah is simply scary – but knowing as an actor when to underplay to maximum effect. May not be a bad idea for Fergie Fraser as friend Laurie to find someone else to hang with, perhaps, though she seems happy enough to join the fray as required when the going gets toughest.
Stuck with trying to educate this motley crew, Jacob Thomas as school principal Dr Ehrin facing reluctant Ellie may be thinking of retiring but probably has a career expectancy of more than 8 years, mostly in comedy if the work comes his way. A double act with his skeleton-waltzing biology teacher may also prove fruitful. Completing an amusing office scene, Bessy Ewa as an unlucky Mrs Luckenbill and Harry Lambert as slighted Spanish teacher Senor O’Brien provide solid background support helping both jokes and insults really fly.
Elsewhere on campus, head of P.E. Ms Meyers (Bethany Dare) is nicely sadistic (whom did she base it on?) and could probably do the job for real.
Back home, there’s a stand-out piece of aging from Jake Samson as Grandpa. His stoop and slight air of disconnection are truthful and accurate. Meg Power (Grandma) catches the slightly nervy modulation of speech her character requires too. Incidentally, Sophie Hutchinson (Mrs Time) clearly takes the same acting classes, her own aged character’s grouchiness indicates that all have absorbed the soundest acting technique for the future.
Also orbiting around Katherine, Daisy English as business associate Torrey avoids mousey cliché yet tells us all we need to know and more about what it feels like having to take charge of a chaos she’ll never believe even if she knew.
Equally baffled by proceedings, Woodrow Young is one confused (twice) Pastor Bruno who just wants to get the couple married. In the midst too, Jay Albray as Louis is a convincing photographer, who handles being put behind a camera for much of the show with compelling ability. Tanisha-Mae Brown as Danielle, the accompanying journalist stuck with an awkward interviewee, also makes the most of her scene.
Later, as Kowalski and Sitz, a pair of blues-singing officers in blue, Charlie Pittman and Kingsley Morton provide further kitchen hilarity in one of the best numbers in the show – another song and dance double act in the making.
That’s where this production really scores highest. The ensemble dances are ambitious and well executed, a credit to choreographer Claira Vaughan. The scenes between dance and musical numbers kept exceptionally tight by director Luke Kernaghan.
Rebecca Brower’s set connects the auditorium with the stage using a curve that would fit perfectly into the Charing Cross Theatre, had any producer the sense to buy up this entire production for transfer. Nic Farman’s lighting likewise uses the entire house as required. Natasha Jenkins keeps the wardrobe simple and effective with great use of t-shirts, and Adam Fisher’s sound balance works even in the always tricky front row.
The overall impression is of a show too intimate to scale for a massive house, but with attractive songs and wonderful interplay between characters perfect for smaller auditoria.
Here, the extra charm comes from a wonderful confidence, not yet quite burnished with a patina of belief, from the entire cast. Experienced professionals are no longer surprised that they can achieve repeatedly complex characterisation, vocal and dance routines. That this team retain the magic of being young and rejoicing in fresh learning adds something which no commercial production of this show can replicate – hence the monkey’s claim of “definitive.” This is about experience of teenage life, by those who are living it.
It's a real sadness that acting is such a difficult profession, and that this graduating year will face the same uncertainties as those above and below them. That they can demonstrate here their individual and collective talent so convincingly should always be remembered by every one of them - no matter what the future holds.
More to the point, they have shared love with their cast-mates and audience – something no body could or should ever wish to exchange, not even for a day.