Review of the Year - The London Stage

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 29th December, 2017

West End Musicals

There was never really any doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway sensation Hamilton, which opened long after most people had hung their Christmas decorations, was going to be an awesome experience.

This musical, which combined rap, hip-hop, soul and rock with the kind of flawed tragic hero that one normally expects to find in Shakespeare, is as good as it gets.

A great plot, wonderful songs and spectacular choreography keep an audience in thrall for close to 3 hours. The only problem will be getting tickets.

The advent of Hamilton blew the opposition out of the water, which is a great shame since Everybody’s Talking about Jamie was also a really special new musical. All credit should go to a creative team of Tom MacRae who wrote the book and lyrics, Dan Gillespie Sells the music and director / inspiration Jonathan Butterell. Collectively, they have created a really special piece of theatre.

Operating on a much smaller scale, the show told a deeply moving true story about a gay 16-year-old desperate to wear a frock to the school ball.

Following an outing in Sheffield, where the drama was set, the show has now arrived on Shaftesbury Avenue and seems set for a long run, thanks in part to an unforgettable performance from John McCrea in the title role. It also has a really catchy title tune that just won’t leave your head.

The latest incarnation of 42nd Street was a toe-tapping extravaganza that will inevitably put a smile on your face. The producers really pulled out all the stops to ensure that visitors would have a good time. Randy Skinner’s choreography proved exceptional, while the costumes were lavish and seemingly changed every couple of minutes.

There were some lovely performances and great tunes particularly the unforgettable “Lullaby of Broadway”.

In a different style, An American in Paris pleased ballet fans as well as those addicted to musicals. Director Christopher Wheeldon managed to combine the romance of a timeless tale and musical compositions by the Gershwins with glorious dance from a cast led by Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope.

Opening at almost the same time as those two American classics was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, generally recognised as one of the greatest musicals of all time.

The evening at the Coliseum featured a full-scale orchestra, which is always a treat for musical fans. A cast featuring Alfie Boe, Katherine Jenkins and, somewhat incongruously Nicholas Lyndhurst, proved to be suitably crowd-pleasing, particularly with its anthemic “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Bizarrely, Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell debuted at the same venue later in the year. This was the night out to die for if you are a (slightly ageing) rock fan. It featured all of the songs from Meat Loaf’s iconic album blended together in a story that may not have represented high art but was by no means silly, thus putting it a cut above much of the competition. For those that missed a very short run, the production is returning to London at the Dominion in the New Year.

Young Frankenstein, based on the movie by Mel Brooks, took an inordinate time to make it across the Atlantic. One might have imagined that the delay was due to some kind of inherent weakness but the show is absolutely hilarious. It will bring back memories of The Producers and director Susan Stroman ensured that both the music and choreography blended in well with an absurd storyline.

The dominance of work that started out in America was also demonstrated by two other shows. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill highlighted the talents of Audra McDonald in a gut-wrenching biography of Billie Holiday.

The Vaults welcomed a low-budget but highly enthusiastic revival of Hair, featuring a young cast who had originally made this new version a hit at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. The uncomfortable London venue was hardly conducive to a good night out but this imaginative Golden Jubilee take on a modern classic was a welcome addition to the capital’s musical offerings.

Tom Morris’s imaginative staging of The Grinning Man, based on a Victor Hugo novel, featured fantastic puppetry to complement a morality tale with a series of bravely downbeat songs that brought to mind another Hugo adaptation, Les Misèrables.

At the same venue but in the smaller space, a new English version of La Bohème created by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott, the former its director and the latter its star, was a real treat.

With an orchestra of only two and a cast of four, the team had relocated Puccini’s tragic opera to Dalston today with great wit. Helpfully, the performing quartet all had glorious voices and the kind of acting skills that could survive attention from audience members over whom they were literally tripping at times.

Stiles and Drewe brought a new musical interpretation of The Wind in the Willows to the London Palladium but, unfortunately, could not manage to overcome memories of either Kenneth Grahame’s timeless novel or Alan Bennett’s adaptation for the National.

Similarly, an immersive new version of Barnum, featuring Marcus Brigstocke who did not seem an ideal choice to carry such a big burden in a musical, was enjoyable but did not hit the heights of so many other Christmas musicals originally presented at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

The Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre) has now been transformed by Lord Lloyd Webber into a small-scale venue for musicals.

This critic did not get there as often as he would have liked but was fascinated by a highly atmospheric stage version of Federico Fellini’s iconic film La Strada. The production was directed by Sally Cookson and particularly distinguished by central performances from Audrey Brisson, Stuart Goodwin and Bart Soroczynski.

|| ||