Posts Tagged ‘Birmingham Hippodrome’

Mini-review – Nutcracker – Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Hippodrome and the O2 Arena

December 26, 2011

I have three traditions every Christmas: I see a new version of a Christmas Carol, I see a panto, and I see a new version of the Nutcracker. This year, Birmingham Royal Ballet was the designated dance company, as I’d never seen the Peter Wright choreography and have really been enjoying the quality of this group’s work. They’re bringing it to the O2 arena in London as I write this, but I knew I wasn’t going to be around to see it then thanks to having Christmas plans that involved going back to the States. So on the first Saturday of December I headed out, bright and early, for my first ever trip to Birmingham – with tickets bought well in advance for a sold-out performance.

It was an easy walk to the theater, and I was pleased to see an outpost of my beloved Red Hot Szechuan restaurant practically next door – the Hippodrome is right next to Chinatown so lunch options are numerous. The theater was interesting – inside, a lovely old music hall era building, but the external audience services areas were all very modern, leading me to suspect an add-on at some point.

This review isn’t going to go into a lot of detail about the dancing as I didn’t take explicit notes, but is more a record of the differences between this Nutcracker and others. First, the role of Clara is played in both acts by an adult – in this case Carol-Anne Millar, whom I’ve taken a shine to since seeing her in “Pineapple Poll” last October. This means that the dancing in Act One is generally much better quality than any show relying on a child principal – so much better to put an adult in a girlish dress and let her dance skill show through! Interestingly, the focus of this ballet is much less on, as I call it, “Clara’s awakening to adulthood,” to the world of love instead of the love of dolls; a situation which means she does very little dancing with the prince in Act 2 and turns all of it into an extended dream sequence. I was also taken with the costuming for the party in Act 1 – the various mothers all have dresses which, despite having very modern colorings to them, are attractively cut in a Victorian way (circa 1870-1888) that I found very enjoyable for my inner geek.

Act one was actually not particularly memorable (rather a lack of some expected elements such as the clock, and little was made of Clara participating in the battle of the mice). Really, it never is, but I found the general tenor of the dance was enjoyable and the Harlequin and Columbine that Drosselmeier brought were a bit more “real people under an evil spell” than usual. Things started to crank up (as usual) when Clara is finally transported to Sugar Plum land, where instead of just having snowflakes dancing around the Snow Fairy (Yijing Zhang), we got four very yummy men getting in on the action and adding a lot of zest with powerful leaps – these being the “four winds.” Where the idea came from, I’ll never know, but in terms of taking some fairly “yeah I’ve seen this before” section of the ballet and giving it real freshness, this was a big success of Wright’s choreography. Go team BRB!

Act two was the suites and the waltz of the flowers. Each “suite” had a bit that allowed Clara to participate, whether following along, fanning herself, or wearing silly hats. Of the group, I was smitten with the Arabian dance, which had an odalisque (Celine Gittens) borne aloft by three male attendants (Brandon Lawrence, Bejamin Soerel, Tyrone Singleton) and dancing so very sensually that I was convinced the true potential of this music had finally been reached. Sadly, the effect was broken almost immediately by the Chinese dance, which was performed in yellow-face. I was mortified. Are there really so few East Asians in England that this can somehow seem acceptable? I would propose that, if BRB wants to put dancer who are clearly recognizable as being from, say, China, on stage, that perhaps they should look at using Chinese Opera makeup instead of this horrible racist slap that does no favors to the company, the dancers, or to the message it sends about racism. It’s 2011, guys, get with the program.

Clara’s non-romance means the grand pas de deux at the end of the Waltz of the Flowers lacks the kind of emotional punch it would have had if it had been Clara and her prince, but as it stands, the work as a whole is very enjoyable and I think a strong Nutcracker, less fluffy than the Royal Ballet’s although with less emotional impact than theirs. I’d consider it worth seeing again, and I hope it’s a grand success at the O2 when they make it there this week.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 3rd, 2011. It will be performed at London’s O2 arena December 27-30, 2011.)

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Review – Top Hat (the musical, not the movie) – Milton Keynes (transferred to the Aldwych – was Birmingham Hippodrome, Southampton Mayflower, Plymouth Theatre Royal, Leeds Grand etc.)

September 2, 2011

UPDATE: Top Hat has now transferred to the Aldwych Theater, but according to The West End Whingers, my review seems pretty sound still – though you may prefer to read theirs. (The following review is from August, 2011.)

There’s been only one musical on my mind this summer – Top Hat, a brand new staging of a musical that’s previously only existed on the silver screen. For me, it was the chance to see my idol Summer Strallen in a part that actually took advantage of her triple-threat talents that I’d last seen put to their full use in Drowsy Chaperone. A dancing role previously held down by Ginger Rogers? Sign me up! Summer seemed like the perfect person for the role. Even better, there was a whole plate full of Irving Berlin songs fleshing out the original five. Sadly, though there wasn’t a London date in sight, so I was stuck going to Milton Keynes to get my fix – but, hey, nothing like seeing a show early in its run to put you ahead of the blogging pack, right? Plus, truth be told, I just couldn’t wait. Woo hoo tap dancing on the big stage SIGN ME UP!

Now, as it turns out Milton Keynes was actually way more of a hike than I’d expected – a full hour out of London (and I live an hour south of Euston so my trip back was a real marathon) and expensive as it’s on one of those weaselly train lines that charges peak fares in the evenings as well as the mornings. But, well, the running time was short enough (just about 2:30) that I could be ensured of getting back before last train, so all is well.

I’m not familiar with the story of Top Hat, as I must have seen it well over twenty years ago, so I was pretty empty of expectations. The show starts with a lively musical number that introduces us to our lead, Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers), an American dance man whose been invited to come perform in London – the London of 1930s American musicals, which is all Cockneys and Art Deco and men in top hats, with bizarre rules about politeness and an obsession with scandal (very plus ca change in my eyes). There he winds up at a posh hotel where he just starts randomly dancing away in his room in my very favorite scene from the entire play, perfectly Fred Astaire as he danced with a hat rack, and perfectly zany as the maid and service staff joined in. It was beautifully choreographed and a real joy.

In the story arc, this dance is what provokes the meeting between Jerry and Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen) – he’s tap dancing on her ceiling, and when she comes up to complain, Jerry is instantly smitten. This leads to the rest of the silliness as former permanent bachelor Jerry chases Dale around London (most wonderfully in Hyde Park, with the number “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” and the comedy in a hansom cab) and eventually in Venice, with Dale fighting her attraction to Jerry due to a mistaken identity (she thinks he’s Horace Hardwick, the man who rented the original hotel room). Of course they wind up together in the end, and there are several more wonderful dances along the way, including the amazing one with around 16 male tap dancers, who are joined by a bunch of tuxedoed women. Wow!

Sadly, the thing that kept me from really buying this show was the lack of electricity between Jerry and Dale, which kept me from really being able to get into the rest of the show – crazy that what I came for was the dancing, but then it was the acting that frustrated me! As near as I can tell, this was probably due to a very short rehearsal time – it seemed like the background dancers had probably been working on it for ages, but the leads only got pulled in about a week before the show started. (And I saw this show AFTER press night, so no grousing about my seeing a preview, please.) I was also displeased with the costuming – while some of the outfits were great, there was a general cheapness to many of them – including the what should have been fabulous feathered dress Dale wears toward the end of act two – that made the dancers look dumpy when they should have been svelte.

Overall, this was a pleasant night, but it wasn’t the blockbuster I was hoping for. In retrospect, I much preferred Crazy for You, which had wittier dialogue and a much less wooden male lead (which I suspect was Chambers’ attempt to channel Astaire). Given a few more months on the road, I am guessing a lot of my complaints will have been taken care of, and there’s no doubt that the Milton Keynes audience ate it up – almost uniformly giving it a standing ovation. This wasn’t the American tourists screwing it up, it was English people expressing their appreciation for a show they really enjoyed. I anticipate a successful tour and I do hope that it makes a London transfer after it’s had several months to bake.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 25th, 2011. Top Hat will be touring the UK through December 10th, 2011.)